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Supreme Court renders Decision on Prayer at Government Events
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The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a prayer recited by the municipal council of Saguenay, in combination with the circumstances surrounding that prayer, breached the state’s duty of neutrality and resulted in a violation of the rights of an atheist complainant.


Bruce Clemenger, President of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada
"The Supreme Court did not ban offering prayers at government events, but they did offer guidance about when a prayer may cross a line," says Bruce Clemenger, President of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. "It was the circumstances and context of the prayer that the Court found violated the neutrality of the state and contravened the religious freedom of an atheist who challenged the prayer."

In the decision the Court noted that an Ontario court had upheld the reciting of a prayer before town council meetings and did not overrule this decision. Likewise, today’s decision notes that the House of Commons opens each day with a prayer, but says that the circumstances of the recitations of the two prayers are different.

The Court said:

The state must be neutral, neither favouring nor hindering any particular belief - or non-belief.

Public spaces must be neutral – that is, free from coercion, pressure and judgment on the part of public authorities in matters of spiritulity.

The purpose of neutrality is to insure that the state is, and appears to be, open to all points of view regardless of their spiritual basis.


CLICK THE DOCUMENT FOR THE FULL PDF VERSION
A state practice is discriminatory if it can be shown to have a religious purpose that interferes with someone's ability to act in accordance with his or her beliefs in a manner that is non-trivial or insubstantial.

"In some ways this decision raises more questions than it answers," says Clemenger. "For example, the Court said that it is discriminatory for state officials in the performance of their functions to profess, adopt or favour one belief to the exclusion of all others. And yet they did not say how this might extend to matters of religious observance such as wearing religious symbols."

Background

A municipal by-law allowed city council meetings in Saguenay to begin with a voluntary prayer for members who wished to participate. Alain Simoneau, a resident of Saguenay at the time, filed a complaint with a human rights tribunal in 2007 over the prayer and the presence of religious symbols, such as a crucifix, at city hall. Simoneau argued that these religious expressions violated his freedom of conscience and religion.

The Quebec human rights tribunal found in Simoneau's favour and instructed the city of Saguenay to remove the religious symbols and not allow prayer before council meetings.

In the appeal of the tribunal decision, the Quebec Court of Appeal found that the practice of reciting the prayer was permissible and did not infringe on Simoneau’s freedom of conscience.

This case goes beyond a disagreement between Simoneau and the Saguenay council to consider the meaning of religious freedom, whether religious expression in state activities violates the neutrality of the state and whether exposure to someone praying does or does not violate the religious freedom of the observer.

For additional resources on the EFC's intervention in Mouvement laïque québécois, et al. v. City of Saguenay, et al, including its factum, visit www.theEFC.ca/Saguenay.