Ottawa, ON April 15, 2015 – The Catholic Civil Rights League (CCRL) comments on the release today by the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) in the Mouvement Laïque Québécois and Alain Simoneau v. City of Saguenay and Jean Tremblay appeal.
At issue in this appeal was whether the City of Saguenay, Quebec and their mayor Jean Tremblay acted in a discriminatory manner against Alain Simoneau, a non-believer, by permitting prayers at city council meetings along with the continued display of previously in place religious symbols on city property. At its core, this appeal was also about how to reconcile or balance competing rights under anti-discrimination statutes. The CCRL’s intervention emphasized that multi-faith and non-denominational prayers and religious symbols do not discriminate against non-believers. The CCRL intervened jointly with the Association of Catholic Parents of Quebec, and the Faith and Freedom Alliance.
The Supreme Court ruled today that the adoption by city by-law of the following prayer discriminated against the Applicant, an atheist, and restored a damage award of $30,000 from a Quebec human rights tribunal. Here is the actual prayer:
Almighty God, we thank You for the great blessings that You have given to Saguenay and its citizens, including freedom, opportunities for development and peace. Guide us in our deliberations as City Council members and help us to be aware of our duties and responsibilities. Grant us the wisdom, knowledge and understanding to allow us to preserve the benefits enjoyed by our city for all to enjoy and so that we may make wise decisions. Amen.
The Court further ruled that a two minute period of silence following the prayer, so as to allow non-adherents a chance to enter the chamber without exposure to the invocation, likewise to be illegal.
The CCRL supports an authentic pluralism, which allows for religion to share the public square with non-believers, and this includes prayer which must not compel obedience and which is not used to proselytize or advance any one faith, or to disparage any other faith or belief, including non-belief. The CCRL argued, in fact, that any exclusion of an inclusive prayer, which is not coercive or a constraint on non-believers, would offend state neutrality because it would amount to a preference for non-belief over belief.
The CCRL favours a true notion of authentic Canadian pluralism which encourages the participation of multiple prayer options and/or a moment of silence for non-believers or for those with no particular affiliation. Such authentic pluralism allows for public participation of religious believers with others, even if there may be disagreement, and engages in proper respect for and allowance of difference in the public square.
The late Canadian theologian and author, Father Richard John Neuhaus, coined the phrase in his 1984 book, The Naked Public Square, suggesting that US constitutional developments were promoting a public square “naked” of religious belief. The Supreme Court of Canada has moved our country in a similar direction today.
The SCC went further to discount the language from the preamble to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which asserts that Canada was founded on the principle of the supremacy of God, as being of no assistance in interpreting other sections of the Charter. Based on recent decisions, it can be argued that the Court is also moving away from the other founding principle mentioned in the preamble: the rule of law.
Mr. Justice Casgon cited the previous ruling of the Quebec Court of Appeal, which had decided in favour of a notion of “benevolent neutrality” in the Saguenay case:
The duty of neutrality must be complied with in a manner that is consistent with society’s heritage and traditions, and with the state’s duty to preserve its history (para. 69). Protection of the diversity of beliefs must be reconciled with the cultural reality of society, which includes its religious heritage (para. 72).
The Quebec court further held that the interference with Mr. Simoneau’s freedom, if any, was trivial or insubstantial in the case of both the prayer and the symbols (paras. 115 and 127).
However, in today’s ruling, Mr. Justice Casgon stated:
By expressing no preference, the state ensures 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. I note that a neutral public space does not mean the homogenization of private players in that space. 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 (para 74).
It is hoped that the Parliament of Canada will maintain its prayer invocation prior to opening its sessions, and that invocation of a Judeo Christian God will be allowed in public ceremonies, such as Remembrance Day or other recognitions of service by Canadians, many of whom sacrificed their lives “for God and country”. The adoption of such slogans may soon attract a human rights complaint.
May God bless Canada!
About the CCRL
Catholic Civil Rights League (CCRL) (www.ccrl.ca) assists in creating conditions within which Catholic teachings can be better understood, cooperates with other organizations in defending civil rights in Canada, and opposes defamation and discrimination against Catholics on the basis of their beliefs. The CCRL was founded in 1985 as an independent lay organization with a large nationwide membership base. The CCRL is a Canadian non-profit organization entirely supported by the generosity of its members.
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