A clear ruling
by: John Tyrrell
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Generally, the war against prayers at the opening of town and city council meetings has not moved north to Canada. Perhaps it is because the prayers are less pervasive than in the US; or perhaps it is that the non-believer communities are less militant or less organized. Or perhaps because Canada lacks a formal statement of church-state separation in its Constitution, nobody thought the argument against prayer could be won.
But all it took was one atheist, Alain Simoneau, sufficiently annoyed at the prayers held to open council meetings in the city of Saguenay that he fought the issue to the Supreme Court of Canada.
And he won in a unanimous decision. No ambiguity. All the Justices concurred.
“Sponsorship of one religious tradition by the state in breach of its duty of neutrality amounts to discrimination against all other such traditions.”
Not even generic prayer relating to no specific religious tradition is permitted, because:
“Even if it [prayer] is said to be inclusive, it may nevertheless exclude non-believers.”
As a result, a number of municipalities across the country quickly decided to end the practice of opening meetings with a prayer. Those that choose to ignore the ruling will have no legal grounds to stand on when someone protests.
The Court went on to make it clear that this ruling applied specifically to governments, but not to individuals.
“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. The neutrality of the public space therefore helps preserve and promote the multicultural nature of Canadian society.”
This may signal the way the court will rule should a case reach it involving regulations or laws restricting the wearing of religious symbols by individuals. (See for example Meditation 1087).
That remains to be fought out in the future. But the main ruling is clear. Opening council meetings and legislative sessions with a prayer is now legally identified as a clear violation of the religious liberties of Canadians. Thus the practice must end.
And one person can make a difference.
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