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La prière municipale au Canada

In December 2006, Alain Simoneau, an atheist and resident of the City of Saguenay, Quebec, raised concerns that the mayor was beginning council meetings with an overtly Catholic prayer. Simoneau asked that the practice be ended. When his request was ignored, he took his complaint to the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse (CDPDJ), a body that investigates violations relating to the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.

After considering the complaint, the CJPD found the prayer discriminatory on the basis of religion, but the organisation chose not to pursue further action. In July 2008, with the assistance of the secular advocacy organization the Mouvement laïque québécois (MLQ), Simoneau filed a case with the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal, alleging discrimination on the basis of religion. The Tribunal ruled in Simoneau’s favour ; it recognized the “prayer was religious and was a breach of religious neutrality,” ordered the practice be ended, and awarded Simoneau $30,000 in damages. The City appealed, and when the Quebec Court of Appeal reviewed the case, it reversed the decision of the Tribunal.

In 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City) that including prayer in a municipal council meeting violated the state’s duty of religious neutrality and was therefore not permitted. In a unanimous decision, the Court sided with the ruling of the Tribunal, and ordered the City of Saguenay to end the practice. In the ruling, Justice Gascon made clear that the inclusion of prayer at council meetings violated the state’s duty of religious neutrality. True neutrality “requires that the state neither favour nor hinder any religion, and that it abstain from taking any position on this subject” (Saguenay, para. 137). Justice Gascon elaborated that this duty was a ‘democratic imperative,’ and that the state must ensure “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” (Saguenay, para. 74).

Including a prayer in meetings created a situation where the state “adopted or favoured one belief to the exclusion of others,” and that doing so, turned the council chambers into a “preferential space for people with theistic beliefs” (Saguenay, paras. 113 and 120). While the prayer in this case was an overtly Catholic one, the Court ruled that had it been more inclusive, it would still not be permitted, noting that “even if a religious practice engaged in by the state is ‘inclusive’, it may nevertheless exclude non-believers (Saguenay, para. 137). The Court also noted that in abstaining, the state did not endorse of unbelief, but rather “no such inference can be drawn from the state’s silence” (Saguenay, para. 134).

The Saguenay decision was very clear : prayer could not be included in municipal council meetings in Canada. Following the case, one study found that, as a result, many municipalities changed their practices after the ruling, though many did not. In Manitoba, six (of 101) municipalities featured prayer in their 2018 inaugural meetings, and four continued to include prayer in regular council meetings. Inaugural meetings follow elections, feature the swearing in of new council members, and tend to include numerous ceremonial elements. A similar study of Ontario found that 156 (of 328) included prayers in their 2018 inaugural meetings, and nine (of 360) included prayers in their regular meetings. An examination of municipalities in British Columbia (BC) found that 26 (of 162) included prayer in their 2018 inaugural meetings, all of them Christian prayers. A subsequent study found that only seven (of 161) BC municipalities included prayers in their 2022 inaugural meetings. Between these two inaugural meetings, the BC Humanist Association, a secular advocacy organization, engaged in extensive advocacy around the issue, leading many municipalities to change their practices.

Compliance with the Saguenay ruling seems to be increasing, though some municipalities persist in including prayer in their meetings, typically their inaugural meetings. Civil society actors, through their ongoing advocacy, are working to ensure that municipalities acknowledge the ruling and their duty of religious neutrality outlines therein.

References and additional readings here.

D 9 janvier 2024    ATeale Phelps Bondaroff

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