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:
“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)