Supreme Court rules prayers can’t continue at Quebec council meeting

In a decision that could reverberate in cities and towns across the country, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that prayers cannot be recited before municipal council meetings in the Quebec town of Saguenay.

OTTAWA — In a decision that could reverberate in cities and towns across the country, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that prayers cannot be recited before municipal council meetings in the Quebec town of Saguenay.

The reading of a Catholic prayer at council meetings infringes on freedom of conscience and religion, the court said in a unanimous ruling Wednesday.

Canadian society has evolved and given rise to a ”concept of neutrality according to which the state must not interfere in religion and beliefs,” the judgment said.

“The state must instead remain neutral in this regard.”

The ruling puts an end to an eight-year legal battle that pitted atheist Alain Simoneau and a secular-rights organization against Saguenay Mayor Jean Tremblay.

While Tremblay will address reporters only on Thursday, one major Canadian city was taking notice of the ruling.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson suspended prayers at a city council meeting Wednesday pending a review of the decision.

Although the Supreme Court decision ruling is based on the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the province’s legislation parallels the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms on these tenets, says law professor Errol Mendes.

That would make a legal challenge by another community an uphill climb, according to Mendes, who teaches constitutional and international law at the University of Ottawa.

“I think it’s a fairly strong signal to the councils across the country that they really have to look at their practices,” he said in an interview.

“Essentially, the court is basically putting forward a very strong statement, not so much on freedom of religion but freedom from religion.”

In the Saguenay case, Simoneau filed an initial complaint in 2007.

City officials introduced a bylaw in 2008 that changed the prayer with a new one it deemed more neutral and delayed the opening of council by two minutes to allow citizens a window to return follow the recital.

But in 2011, Quebec’s human rights tribunal ordered an end to the prayers, demanded that a crucifix in the city council chamber be removed and awarded damages to Simoneau.

The Quebec Court of Appeal overturned the tribunal’s decision in 2013.

The appeals court expressed some reservations about religious symbols in the council chamber, but concluded the city imposed no religious views on its citizens and ruled reciting a prayer does not violate the religious neutrality of the city. The lower court said if the recitation interfered with Simoneau’s moral values, the interference was trivial.

The Supreme Court of Canada disagreed.

”This neutrality requires that the state neither favour nor hinder any particular belief, and the same holds true for non-belief,“ the ruling read. ”It requires that the state abstain from taking any position and thus avoid adhering to a particular belief.

”When all is said and done, the state’s duty to protect every person’s freedom of conscience and religion means that it may not use its powers in such a way as to promote the participation of certain believers or non-believers in public life to the detriment of others.”

Tremblay, a very popular and outspoken mayor in the community 250 kilometres north of Quebec City, mounted his legal battle and raised money from supporters through the city’s website. He said it was a battle to maintain the province’s Roman Catholic heritage.

But the high court added that celebrating and preserving religious heritage cannot justify the state engaging in a discriminatory practice for religious purposes.

Quebec Justice Minister Stephanie Vallee said the Liberal government will address the neutrality issue.

“We’re going to analyze the judgment and see its impact on Quebec legislation and on what we intend to do,” she said.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Government announces 79 new COVID-19 cases in Alberta, 2 in Red Deer

There are 79 new confirmed COVID-19 cases in Alberta, bringing the provincial… Continue reading

A message from the Advocate publisher

In good times and bad, The Red Deer Advocate has been here… Continue reading

Red Deer hospital bracing for COVID-19 impact

“We’re all worried about what’s coming, but I think we feel confident”

WATCH: COVID-19 doesn’t stop Red Deer Public Library from telling stories

Deb Isbister has been reading stories to children for more than 20… Continue reading

Alberta Health Services provides COVID-19 prevention tips

Alberta Health Services has a number of recommendations for people amid the… Continue reading

Alberta government website has latest COVID-19 statistics

Red Deer Advocate readers can stay up to date on the COVID-19… Continue reading

I am still facing that existential angst

Stir crazy. I looked the phrase up, just for fun. “Restless or… Continue reading

Red Deer College adapting and adjusting to COVID-19

I have worked in post-secondary education for more than 30 years, and… Continue reading

Families urge action to get Canadians home from cruise ship stuck off Panama

1,243 passengers and 586 crew on board and more tests are being done every day

Saskatchewan cabinet Minister deletes ‘pray and repent’ tweet over COVID-19

REGINA — A Saskatchewan cabinet minister who tweeted an Old Testament passage… Continue reading

Ontario allows youth to remain in care after passing cut-off age during pandemic

TORONTO — Youth in Ontario’s child welfare system who pass the cut-off… Continue reading

Canada could face legal trouble over refugee deportations: advocates

Deputy Prime Minister Freeland holding ‘urgent’ discussions with U.S. officials

Most Read