City Council Prayers Violate Rights

church-and-stateYou’ve probably seen in the news that Tony Governo has taken the next step in his fight to end religious prayers at Winnipeg City Council meetings. (If you haven’t followed this story from the beginning, see City Flouts Supreme Court Ruling on Prayer.)

In September, Tony received the following response to his letter to Winnipeg’s mayor and City Council:

Dear Mr. Governo:
Thank you for taking the time to contact me about your concerns regarding the invocation undertaken by City Council and your interpretation of the Supreme Court ruling.

Council has examined this issue in early 2015. Our Legal Services Department assisted in the interpretation of the Supreme Court ruling and its impact on our Council practice. All Members of Council were consulted on the matter.

It was determined that the prayer and practice be amended to ensure compliance with the Supreme Court ruling. At meetings of Council, each Councillor, in a monthly rotation, would be given the opportunity to recite a new non-denominational invocation, or an invocation of their choosing, including a meditation or moment of silence.
Notably, the non-denominational invocation does not reference the words “God” or “The Lord”. The invocation is:

As we gather here today as members of City Council;
We seek to be ever mindful of opportunities to render our
service to fellow citizens and to our community;
Keeping in mind always, the enduring values of life and
exerting our efforts in those areas and on those things
upon which future generations can build with confidence;
We recognize that we are meeting on Treaty One land,
The traditional homeland of the Metis nation;
Let us continue to strive to make a better world.

Councillors are free to say what they feel is appropriate. Often Councillors read a prayer from different religions, in tribute and recognition of their ward citizens’ many faiths, or recite words of wisdom from philosophical traditions, again often recognizing the ethnic diversity of their wards. By following this open practice, Councillors are honouring the multi-ethnic diversity of our great City and are not bound by any one religion. By ensuring inclusivity; that we recognize all religions and faiths, and maintaining neutrality, Council has ensured that it is in compliance with the Supreme Court ruling.

Kind regards,
Devi Sharma
City Councillor, Old Kildonan
Speaker of Council

You may be wondering what’s so offensive about this nondenominational invocation, and the answer is nothing, as long as it’s not referred to as a prayer. But not all the councillors read this type of secular invocation, as we explained previously. And from Councillor Sharma’s response, it seems that our city government has no plans to change their guidelines and restrict overtly religious prayers anytime soon, so Tony approached the media to express his concerns. The story appeared on the CTV, CBC, and the Winnipeg Free Press websites.

Predictably, Christians claimed persecution, flooding the comments sections of news and social media sites with their assertions that

  1. Tony is trying to abolish Christianity
  2. there are bigger issues and he should find something better to do
  3. opening the meetings with a prayer is tradition
  4. everyone should respect their religious beliefs
  5. while atheists are whining about this minor First World problem, Christians are thanklessly doing the hard work of trying to provide love, comfort and supplies to the Third World
  6. Canada is a predominantly Christian country and our laws are based on biblical values
  7. if people don’t want to listen to the prayer, they can just don earphones or leave the room.

Some of the commenters were at least civil, although misguided or just plain wrong; some offered a trite “I’ll pray for you”; and others spewed nothing but vitriol and hatred.

Some of the messages Tony received via social media.

Some of the messages Tony received via social media.

These people are completely missing the point. The prayer is unnecessary; city council should simply open their meetings and get down to business. Any councillor or spectator who wants to pray can do so on their own time in private before the meeting – the same as countless employees at other workplaces across Canada. Government meetings are public, and the government must serve everybody, so nobody should have to feel the need to leave the room.

A number of HAAM members who shared and/or supported Tony’s complaint were forced to defend or explain the rationale behind it. Here are a couple who did that very well.  First, Bob Russell received his own share of hatred and vitriol, after posting the following on his social media page.

The Supreme Court has already ruled against a municipality in Quebec regarding public prayer. In that case, the prayer was a Roman Catholic prayer. Non-denominational means only that it is not Christian, Muslim, Jewish, etc… but it still usually makes reference to “God”, either explicitly or implied. Regardless of how nebulous the reference is, or how seemingly benign the prayers are, it is still a religious practice that should have no place in a secular government that is supposed to represent all the people and not just those who are religious.

 

An option tried in the US is to have prayers from different religions on a shared and rotating basis. This all sounds good, but in practice, many officials have walked out of meetings rather than listen to prayers said by Muslims, Hindus, and (Gawd help us) Satanists and Wiccans. Christians have packed the public gallery to sing hymns and drown out prayers from these people. So much for respecting one another’s beliefs.

 

There is a place for prayer but it should not be in government. Comparing prayer at City Council to prayer before a meal in a restaurant fails to clear the first hurdle because a restaurant is not taxpayer funded nor a government agency. You can say your prayers in a restaurant as long as you are not disrupting other patrons. I see it all the time and have yet to see anyone take offence at it – atheist or believer. I would wager that if someone does take offence, it will be another person of faith and not an unbeliever. To paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, we can always rely on the faithful to burn each other’s churches.

 

And nothing at all prevents any councillor or employee from praying quietly to themselves at any time of the day they wish to. They can even meet before the start of official business or their shift to pray all they want to.

 

The secularization of government is a good and necessary thing. By not promoting religion – any religion – the state does, in fact, protect religious belief. Or should we have an official state religion that excludes all other religious and non-religious people? That has been the case in the past here, and still the practice continues today in many parts of the world.

 

Secular government will eventually become a reality. Religious beliefs have no role in official government business. Many people are informed and influenced by their religious beliefs, and the results can be both good and very bad as we well know. Secular government opens the door to allowing people of all beliefs, or no religious belief, to have a full role in the affairs of the city, province and country without discrimination – overt or implied.

After publishing Tony’s story, the Winnipeg Free Press received several letters to the editor critical of the story. Here is Pat Morrow’s response to them:

I applaud Tony Governo for his efforts and putting himself out there for all who value the benefits of a secular government. Not many have witnessed the comments and the text messages calling him a clown or crybaby and worse. For Tony and others active in the secular movement, this is water off a duck’s back. And it begs the question: where are the rational arguments promoting prayer and city Council meetings?

 

Amongst the “rebuttals” to Tony’s efforts is a letter making the claim that his mental anguish over religion in government is a “First World problem”. The ignorance and irony is thick with this one, as undoubtedly the individuals who make this claim enjoy the benefits and privilege of living in a secular society. The separation of religion and government can’t be traced directly to those benefits. One doesn’t have to look very far back in history to see the damage done when religion is partnered with government. History is full of examples, such as Indian residential schools and the Magdalene laundries. Even today, separate school boards in Ontario and Alberta are wasting hundreds of millions of dollars in the duplication of services, simply by maintaining the archaic idea of public religious education.

 

As we look around the world, the evidence is overwhelming – secular, democratic societies score higher on every measure of societal heath, including general happiness, higher life expectancy, lower rates of STI’s, lower infant mortality rates, and the list goes on. No society ever advanced because it became more religious.

 

So when someone calls this a First World problem, they are mistaken. Separation of church and state is a benefit and privilege that should be zealously guarded world-wide. It guarantees protection for all religions and beliefs systems and has no affect on people’s individual rights to practice their own religion.

 

As for the non sequitur claim that Christians have been doing the “thankless” charitable heavy lifting in the Third World for the last several decades, I say “get down off the cross.” Would the writer like a list of the many thousands of NGOs, secular, non-Christian religious, and Humanist organizations that are doing charitable work in the Third World?

 

City politicians have homes, offices, hallways, and churches to pray in. Council Chamber is designated for running the business of the City of Winnipeg – not a place to feature one’s personal religion, beliefs, or new age woo woo. My personal beliefs are not a part of my employment; I just get to work. I’m asking the city to do the same.

Tony plans to proceed with a complaint to the Manitoba Human Rights Commission. Stay tuned for further updates.

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