To pray or not to pray: A look at the SCC decision on opening prayers at council
Back in 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada handed down a historic decision on the issue of prayer and municipal council meetings. The decision and its reasoning gave municipalities across the country cause to pause and to reflect on any practices and traditions that might include prayers. Specifically, the case of Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City) [2015 SCC 16] involved the question of whether the prayer recited by the mayor at the opening of Saguenay’s council meeting was discriminatory. The court found that indeed it was discriminatory, and ordered the respondents – the city and its mayor – to “cease the recitation of the prayer in the chambers where the municipal council meets.” The the by-law was also rendered inoperable and the municipality was required to pay $30,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.
To understand the rationale behind this important decision, a look at the reasoning shared by the court is helpful. On behalf the majority, Gascon J writes:
“By expressing no preference, the state ensures that it preserves a neutral public space that is free of discrimination and in which true freedom to believe or not to believe is enjoyed by everyone equally, given that everyone is valued equally … A neutral public space does not mean the homogenization of private players in that space. Neutrality is required of institutions and the state, not individuals … On the contrary, a neutral public space free from coercion, pressure, and judgment on the part of public authorities in matters of spirituality is intended to protect every person’s freedom and dignity … Section 27 [of the Charter] requires that the state’s duty of neutrality be interpreted not only in a manner consistent with the protective objectives of the Canadian Charter, but also with a view to promoting and enhancing diversity.”
Further, although neither Charter imposes an express duty of religious neutrality on the state, “this duty results from an evolving interpretation of freedom of conscience and religion … This neutrality requires that the state neither favour nor hinder any particular belief, and the same holds true for non‑belief … It requires that the state abstain from taking any position and thus avoid adhering to a particular belief.”
Following the 2015 ruling, many Canadian municipalities moved quickly to review their processes. Many that previously incorporated an opening prayer as part of their council proceedings have dropped the practice. Some have opted instead to sing the national anthem or observe a moment of silence. Some recent, localized controversies around such prayers, however, have highlighted that the practice is still observed by some some municipal councils.
Those municipal councils who still include a prayer at their opening or special ceremonies would be wise to examine the practice in light of the SCC decision. This ruling doesn’t take away the freedom of the mayor and councillors, as individuals, to pray – or not – and be guided according to their own consciences and religious beliefs. It does, however, have implications for carrying out that practice as a formal tradition or procedure as part of an inclusive public process.
The full text of the SCC decision is online at http://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/15288/index.do. MW
Author: Susan M. Gardner
Updated: December 2018
A version of this article originally appeared in the May 2015 edition of Municipal World.