QUEBEC CITY (CNS) — Canadian cities must put an end to prayers during council meetings, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled April 15.
The court said such prayers go against freedom of religion and conscience. In a unanimous decision and in the name of neutrality of state, all nine judges agreed that prayers should not be allowed anymore.
The case submitted to the highest Canadian court pitted the mayor of Saguenay, a town 124 miles north of Quebec City, against Alain Simoneau and the Quebec Lay Movement. In 2006, Simoneau complained that the tradition of praying at the beginning of council meetings violated his right to freedom of conscience and religion. A Quebec human rights tribunal agreed with him and told Mayor Jean Tremblay and the city of Saguenay to drop the prayer and pay Simoneau CA$30,000.
In 2013, the Quebec Court of Appeal ruled Saguenay could keep its prayer tradition, but the Supreme Court of Canada reversed that ruling.
However, its ruling not only applies to the City of Saguenay, but to all cities and towns across Quebec and Canada. It said the freedom of conscience and religion provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom and the Quebec Charter “must be given a generous and expansive interpretation … to ensure that those to whom these charters apply enjoy the full benefit of the rights and freedoms.”
Major cities like Ottawa and Windsor, Ontario, and Calgary, Alberta, said they would stop saying prayers while they studied the impact of the court ruling.
Tremblay is one of the very few Quebec politicians to openly talk about his Catholic faith. On April 16, he said he was “disappointed” by the Supreme Court’s ruling and said although he would not oppose the court, Quebec residents should “stand up” for their traditions.
Bishop Andre Rivest of Chicoutimi, Quebec, the diocese in which Saguenay is located, said he was not surprised by the ruling.
“I supported the mayor, so I’m obviously disappointed. I’m the pastor of a region where about 95 percent of the population is Catholic, so praying is in our population’s nature,” he said.
Though the Quebec Lay Movement heralded the decision as a major victory, University of Montreal constitutional specialist Sebastien Beaulac stressed that the main argument coming out of the ruling is the importance of the neutrality of the state.
“Here, the Supreme Court sets the record straight and takes into account Canadian reality as it is. It is not a decision against Catholicism, since its content might be extrapolated to all religions. It is the idea of a public office not being associated with any religion that is the backbone of the ruling. Tremblay can still be Catholic: However, he can’t use his position to promote his faith,” he said.