Canadian Supreme Court Unanimously Rules Against Prayer at Government Meetings in Quebec Town

For a while now, we’ve been following the Saguenay prayer case.

To summarize, Alain Simoneau, who lives in Saguenay (Quebec), challenged the opening prayers at his city government’s meetings. The province’s human rights tribunal agreed that religious prayers violated the law, but the Court of Appeal reversed the ruling, putting the matter in the hands of the national Supreme Court.

Canadian Supreme Court

But today, eight years after the initial challenge, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Simoneau (and non-religious Canadians everywhere), putting an end to religious invocations in Saguenay. (This is a big freakin’ deal.)

In a unanimous decision today, the country’s top court said reciting a Catholic prayer at council meetings infringes on freedom of conscience and religion.

The court ordered the City of Saguenay and the mayor to stop reciting prayer. It also ordered the city and Tremblay to pay Simoneau a total of $33,200 in compensatory damages, punitive damages and costs.

The broad ruling could apply to other municipalities as well, given that dozens of them around the country begin meetings with prayers. Already, Ottawa’s city council halted prayer today in deference to the ruling. But it’s unclear if this is a broad “do not pray” that applies across the board.

The full decision can be read here. (The U.S. Supreme Court would do well to check it out and remind themselves what the First Amendment is all about…)

The state’s duty of religious neutrality results from an evolving interpretation of freedom of conscience and religion. The evolution of Canadian society has given rise to a concept of this neutrality according to which the state must not interfere in religion and beliefs. The state must instead remain neutral in this regard, which means that it must neither favour nor hinder any particular belief, and the same holds true for non-belief. The pursuit of the ideal of a free and democratic society requires the state to encourage everyone to participate freely in public life regardless of their beliefs. 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, and it helps preserve and promote the multicultural nature of Canadian society. 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. If the state adheres to a form of religious expression under the guise of cultural or historical reality or heritage, it breaches its duty of neutrality. The Tribunal was therefore correct in holding that the state’s duty of neutrality means that a state authority cannot make use of its powers to promote or impose a religious belief. Contrary to what the Court of Appeal suggested, the state’s duty to remain neutral on questions relating to religion cannot be reconciled with a benevolence that would allow it to adhere to a religious belief.

The Canadian Secular Alliance, among others, are hailing the ruling:

“The decision is a victory for pluralism, equality and neutrality, rather than a promotion of atheism,” said CSA President Greg Oliver. “Barring the municipal council from reciting the prayer would not amount to giving atheism and agnosticism prevalence over religious beliefs,” the court declared.

Culture or history do not provide suitable grounds to preserve state-endorsed religious expression, the Supreme Court wrote in a decision with far-ranging implications.

More to come soon.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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