Thursday, April 16, 2015

Canadian Supreme Court Rejects Prayer At City Council Meetings

In an important church-state decision, the Supreme Court of Canada yesterday held that a facially non-sectarian prayer prescribed by a municipal by-law to be said before the start of City Council meetings violates the duty of religious neutrality imposed by the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  At each Council meeting, the mayor would recite the prayer, while at the beginning and end of the prayer he and other Council members would make the sign of the cross and say "in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit".  In Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City), (SCC, April 15, 2015), the recitation of the prayer was challenged by an atheist who attended Council meetings. The Court said in part:
Neither the Quebec Charter nor the Canadian Charter  expressly imposes a duty of religious neutrality on the state. This duty results from an evolving interpretation of freedom of conscience and religion....
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. The neutrality of the public space therefore helps preserve and promote the multicultural nature of Canadian society enshrined in s. 27  of the Canadian Charter.
UPI reports on the decision. [Thanks to Scott Mange for the lead.]