Quebec Court of Appeal Rules That City Council’s 20-Second Prayer to ‘All-Powerful God’ is Perfectly Legal

In 2006, atheist Alain Simoneau told the city council of Saguenay, Quebec (Canada) that they needed to stop reciting a prayer at their meetings. It took years for a lawsuit to get filed and for a local court to issue a ruling, but in 2011, Quebec’s human-rights tribunal stopped the city from holding its 20-second prayer to “all-powerful God.” The tribunal also made the council take down a crucifix that was on the wall and pay $30,000 in damages to Simoneau. While the case was in progress, the prayer was replaced with a (still excruciatingly long) two-minute moment of silence.

Yesterday, Quebec’s Court of Appeal reversed that ruling (PDF, in French), somehow making the absurd case that “reciting a prayer does not violate the religious neutrality of the city.”

… the hell?

The verdict concluded that the city imposed no religious views on its citizens. It said the prayers had no discernible effect on the day-to-day running of the city.

“There are no specific orders related to this ceremony,” the ruling said. “All throughout it, and for the entire duration of council meetings, the doors remain open and citizens can enter and leave at will.”

Essentially, they argued that Simoneau couldn’t show the court he was “discriminated” against. But what would that have even looked like? This is a case that should have been decided, not on the harm it causes people, but on the principle of the law. This prayer is clearly establishing Christianity as the city’s official religion and I don’t get how the court let that slide.

It’s not even ceremonial deism, which the city might have gotten away with — the mayor of Saguenay, Jean Tremblay, made it very clear that he was fighting a religious battle on behalf of Jesus:

Saguenay Mayor Jean Tremblay (Jacques Boissinot – The Canadian Press)

I fight this battle because I adore Christ,” he told a tribunal investigating the complaint in 2011. “When I get to the other side, I’m going to be able to be a little proud. I’m going to be able to tell him: ‘I fought for you.’ There is no more beautiful argument.”

For what it’s worth, the Court of Appeal made it clear that Tremblay wasn’t helping his case:

Judge Gagnon said that by making the sign of the cross at the beginning and end of the prayer and saying the words, “Father, Son and Holy Ghost,” the mayor appears to be crossing the line. “This conduct constitutes an undeniable public adhesion to Catholicism,” he wrote. He called it “quite improper” for the mayor to use his position to promote his personal religious convictions.

But those were not the questions before the court…

It’s possible that a separate lawsuit could be initiated over the mayor’s use of his government position to promote his personal faith, but that’s another story.

Another question we should be asking is whether the Court of Appeal would have made the same argument if this were a prayer to Allah or a statement that God didn’t exist. In either case, I would think many Christians would complain that city council meetings shouldn’t be used for those sorts of “religious” pronouncements. So why is it okay when we’re talking about Jesus?

As of this writing, the Mouvement Laïque Québécois (which defended the atheist Simoneau) has not issued any public statement or hint about where they plan to go from here. But I hope they challenge this ruling and take it to the Supreme Court of Canada.

(Thanks to @stephDG79 for the link)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • DougI

    Somehow they managed to clone Scalia and put him in the Canadian courts.

  • The Other Weirdo

    Quebec is in Canada, in case you haven’t noticed, and Canada isn’t the U.S. Canada doesn’t have an official, constitutionally-binding legal separation of church and state. Besides, you are talking about about Quebec, where every other town name begins with “Saint” and where they named a town Saint Louis du Ha! Ha!.

    • Stev84

      Separation of church and state in the US really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. As if most higher US courts would have come to a different conclusion. The US Supreme Court also thinks that some public support for religion by the government is perfectly fine.They’d just say that prayers by government officials are “ceremonial deism” and justify it by declaring it part of normal political rituals. The idea that people aren’t harmed by such professions of religion can also be found in American court cases.

  • Nilanka15

    I’m ashamed to be Canadian….

    • Murray_is_a_GENIUS

      I’m not. Different opinions are good. If I lived in Saguenay (and I don’t) I would simply have a moment of silence instead of the prayer. As with all such proceudres, no one is actually forced to partcipate. We had (have? I haven’t been inside City Hall in Ottawa in months) something similar in City Hall and it died down fairly quickly. My big question would be whether the other Councillors have an issue with the prayer. If a majority of councillors and citizens sees no issue with it, a compromise should probably come into play for atheists/non-believers (moment of silence, abstention).

  • C Peterson

    While the U.S. clearly has the worst case of Christ Cancer, it does seem like this is a problem that crops up regularly in all the countries sharing a British heritage. This tension between religious and secular politics, this insecurity that keeps people pushing for legal protection of religion. There is a common thread, a fundamental similarity in the stories that come out of the UK, out of Canada, out of Australia, out of the U.S.

    • C Peterson

      BTW, I say this even while recognizing the peculiar French traditions of
      Quebec, and its semi-autonomy. It’s still Canada, still largely subject
      to Canadian legal process, so I see it more as an English thing than a French one.

    • Michael W Busch

      I’m not sure “sharing a British heritage” is that relevant here, except as it comes to language. For me at least, it is far more likely for such stories in largely English-speaking countries to show up in the media that I read. So do we know if it is sampling bias or not?

      • C Peterson

        Not sure. But we see state/church stories coming from other places- Latin America, Europe, and they seem to have a very different style to them. I just have the sense there’s some aspect of British history that results in a particular type of state/church interaction in countries that used to be British.

        • Michael W Busch

          Do we have similar interactions in India? South Africa? The rest of the Commonwealth countries? Etc. (Yes, there are differences between those countries and those you listed.)

          • C Peterson

            That’s a good question, and I don’t really know. I think, probably not. The pattern that I see is associated with countries that were essentially populated by the British, not ones that happened to be ruled by them. The cultural similarities between the UK, Canada, the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand are very great; existing regions or countries that were simply colonized or governed at some point by the British are a different thing, since they already had standing cultures and their own religious and political heritage.

  • Mariève Lapierre

    Quebec has a pretty weird relationship with religion… On one hand, they kicked the Clatholic clergy out of schools and hospitals in the 60s, and massively deserted churches. On the other hand, 80% of the population still identifies as Catholic (which is roughly the same percentage as the people whose first language is French), mostly because of cultural and historical reasons. So when accused of promoting one religion over the others, they’ll play the “Christian nation” card and force everyone to accept their “cultural heritage”, even though no one actually gives a shit about “submitting to God” in politics.

  • Tel

    The verdict concluded the prayers had no effect on the running of the city.

    If only someone took notice of that.

    • Laura D

      I noticed that too. If the prayer has no effect on the running of the city, why continue the prayer? And is Jesus so impotent that he needs Mayor Tremblay to go to bat for him?

  • Edmond

    When I get to the other side, I’m going to be able to be a little proud. I’m going to be able to tell him: ‘I fought for you’.

    And Jesus is gonna be able to say, “Why, did you think I was too weak to do it for myself? Is FIGHTING what you’re down there to do?”

  • JET

    “When I get to the other side, I’m going to be able to be a little proud. I’m going to be able to tell him: ‘I fought for you.’ There is no more beautiful argument.”
    This is the most concise, honest and telling statement I have ever heard come out of the mouth of a theist. It shows that every action he takes on this earth is out of fear that his god may not be sufficiently placated to offer him everlasting life. What he does on earth to or for his fellow man is irrelevant. It’s all about personally, selfishly, and pridefully pleasing his god, showing that he was on the right side in the “battle”, and lining up the “arguments” in his favor so that he is deserving of a blissful eternity. Belief in any religion is simply fear of death and fear of the unknown.

  • jdm8

    “I fight this battle because I adore Christ,”

    Keep your romantic interludes off the clock!

    • Martin Ayotte Cummings

      in french it was more “epic”, he consider himself like the Christ knight during this trial…