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Prayer at any government level meetings violates state neutrality

When politicians and or citizens attend a government meeting, they shouldn’t have to be subjected to official prayers that invoke religious beliefs they don’t share — whether it takes the form of a petition to a god “in Jesus’ name” or a more ecumenical invocation. Inevitably a prayer offered as part of a public proceeding — whether it’s a city council meeting or a state legislative assembly meeting or any other such gathering — will make some listeners feel excluded. That runs counter to the 2015 Supreme Court of Canada decision, that political institutions from across the country must remain neutral with respect to religion.

In a decision that had an immediate impact in several cities and towns across the country, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that prayers cannot be recited before municipal council meetings.

The reading of prayer at council meetings infringes on freedom of conscience and religion, the court said in a unanimous ruling. 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 ruling ended an eight-year legal battle that pitted atheist Alain Simoneau and a secular-rights organization against Saguenay Mayor Jean Tremblay.

The court also took pains to explain that asking for religious “neutrality” does not mean that atheism wins out over religion: “Barring the municipal council from reciting the prayer would not amount to giving atheism and agnosticism prevalence over religious beliefs. There is a distinction between unbelief and true neutrality. True neutrality presupposes abstention, but it does not amount to a stand favoring one view over another.”

The Courts said: ”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.”

However, in Edmonton, members of the Legislature Assembly from across the province gather behind closed doors to pray:



[The Speaker in the chair]
The Speaker: Lord, the God of righteousness and truth, grant to
our Queen, to her government, to Members of the Legislative
Assembly, and to all in positions of responsibility the guidance of
Your spirit. May they never lead the province wrongly through love
of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideas but, laying aside all
private interests and prejudices, keep in mind their responsibility to
seek to improve the condition of all.
Please be seated.


Likewise, the House of Commons also engages in prayer after the top court decision

A prayer reads:

Almighty God, we give thanks for the great blessings which have been bestowed on Canada and its citizens, including the gifts of freedom, opportunity and peace that we enjoy. We pray for our sovereign, Queen Elizabeth, and the Governor General. Guide us in our deliberations as members of Parliament, and strengthen us in our awareness of our duties and responsibilities as members. Grant us wisdom, knowledge, and understanding to preserve the blessings of this country for the benefit of all and to make good laws and wise decisions. Amen.

Since 1877, the daily prayer has marked the beginning of official business at the House of Commons. The prayer is led by Speaker of the House, Geoff Regan, who invites all MPs that wish to join to stand and worship.

According to the rules of Parliament, no official business, debate or deliberation may begin in the House until the daily prayer has been recited. This includes Question Period — the portion of the day when opposition MPs challenge the government on matters of public policy.

This practice isn’t limited to Alberta and Ottawa alone. Eight of 10 provincial legislatures begin the day with some form of prayer. Only Quebec and Newfoundland do not have daily prayers. The three territories also start their day with a prayer.

In all major religions, "prayer" is an act of worship, and while politicians have a right to worship privately as they see fit, the Court’s unanimous ruling was unequivocal when it said public meetings such as municipal council hearings cannot begin with acts of worship, or "prayer."

This is not just a Municipal issue

“Federal and provincial governments are under an equal duty to maintain neutrality with respect to religion,” said Carissima Mathen, a law professor, and constitutional expert at the University of Ottawa. The principles set out in the Supreme Court decision give ammunition to anyone who wants to challenge prayers at a municipal council. But on its own, the decision won’t end prayers in provincial legislatures or the House of Commons because of the parliamentary privilege those bodies enjoy that municipal governments do not.”

Parliamentary Privilege

The special powers Mathen is referring to are known as “parliamentary privilege.” They date back to the 1689 English Bill of Rights — an act that granted English politicians supreme authority over the day-to-day operations of the House of Commons.  It’s the reason why federal and provincial politicians can say whatever they like in legislative assemblies without the fear of being sued or being subject to court rulings (this includes the Supreme Court decision that banned daily prayer from the start of city council meetings).

Other levels of government shouldn't be able to hide behind 300-year-old legislation in order to essentially do whatever they want.

Our government institutions have been evolving toward complete neutrality on religion for the past 30+ years, thanks to the Charter of Rights. There is no explicit separation of church and state in our Constitution, but the fundamental freedoms protected by the Charter have meant that governments have had to respect all religions and their expression, and show no preference for one in particular. The final, inevitable stage in this evolution – equal respect for atheism and the non-religious – has finally arrived with the SCC's decision in Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay.

Municipal Prayers still an issue in Alberta

The B.C Humanist Association has identified a dozen municipalities around Alberta that still engage in religious worship. This is a direct violation of the Supreme Court of Canada's decision. As part of our first 3.5 Campaigns. we are partnering with the B.C Humanists Association to address this issue and request these municipalities comply with the orders of the SCC. 

In time we will address the Alberta Legislature and its violation of religious neutrality and request that they make an amendment and drop the practice. 

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