City Flouts Supreme Court Ruling on Prayer

The Ruling

supreme_court_of_canadaIn April 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Christian prayers at city council meetings in Saguenay, Quebec were unconstitutional. The ruling makes it clear that, in order to promote and respect the rights of all citizens, governments must maintain neutrality with regard to religion.

The following excerpts from the ruling illustrate the concept of neutrality very well (you can read the full ruling here).

 

 

  • [78] “… State neutrality means … that the state must neither encourage nor discourage any form of religious conviction whatsoever. 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… “
  • [132] “… state neutrality is assured when the state neither favours nor hinders any particular religious belief, that is, when it shows respect for all postures towards religion, including that of having no religious beliefs whatsoever, while taking into account the competing constitutional rights of the individuals affected.”
  • [133] “… abstaining does not amount to taking a stand in favour of atheism or agnosticism. The difference, which, although subtle, is important, can be illustrated easily. A practice according to which a municipality’s officials, rather than reciting a prayer, solemnly declared that the council’s deliberations were based on a denial of God would be just as unacceptable. The state’s duty of neutrality would preclude such a position, the effect of which would be to exclude all those who believe in the existence of a deity.”
  • [134] “… there is a distinction between unbelief and true neutrality. True neutrality presupposes abstention, but it does not amount to a stand favouring one view over another. No such inference can be drawn from the state’s silence. In this regard, I will say that the benevolent neutrality to which the Court of Appeal referred is not really compatible with the concept of true neutrality…”
  • [137] “…The purpose of neutrality is instead to ensure that the state is, and appears to be, open to all points of view regardless of their spiritual basis. Far from requiring separation, true neutrality requires that the state neither favour nor hinder any religion, and that it abstain from taking any position on this subject. Even if a religious practice engaged in by the state is “inclusive”, it may nevertheless exclude non-believers…”

Winnipeg’s Response

As a result of this decision, cities across Canada, including Winnipeg, reviewed their practices of opening meetings with prayers. While some of those cities subsequently terminated the practice after the review, Winnipeg did not.

After seeking advice from the city’s legal department, Mayor Brian Bowman stated “[t]he preliminary analysis is that what we are doing is likely permissible.” Bowman noted that local City Hall prayers tend to be non-denominational and not overtly religious. And so, amid some controversy, the councillors continue to recite a prayer of their choosing.

One Person’s Action

separation-of-church-and-stateA year later, in the summer of 2016, HAAM executive member Tony Governo took a look at what’s currently happening at City Hall in Winnipeg and wrote to his councillor asking the following questions:

  • Are prayers still being recited at city hall?
  • If so, do you take your turn at reciting a prayer?
  • Do you always recite the same prayer?
  • What kind of prayer do you recite?
  • Can you provide a copy of the prayer(s) you have recited?
  • Has there been discussion about ending this practice at city hall?
  • Would you recite a “prayer” provided by one of your constituents?

As it turns out, Tony’s Councillor, Cindy Gilroy (Daniel McIntyre) is on record as having read a ‘prayer’ that could not really be termed a prayer at all, but would more appropriately be called a Humanist invocation, and he commended her for that. But other councillors have recited quite a variety of prayers, some of them still overtly religious.

About half of the councillors recite the following ‘generic prayer’ (a previous version of it, before the Supreme Court ruling, contained the words ‘pray’ and ‘amen’):

“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. Let us continue to strive to make a better world.”

So far, so good. But a little research turned up several councillors who mentioned a ‘god’ or ‘spirit’, with varying levels of religiosity. Some examples:

  • Councillor Gillingham (St James) opened a prayer with “Lord…”
  • Councillor Eadie (Mynarski) referred to a “Spiritual guide…”
  • Councillor Pagtakhan (Point Douglas) called upon an “All-inclusive God…”
  • Councillor Mayes (St Vital) has read prayers from various religions
  • Councillor Schreyer (Elmwood) sang a Nigerian prayer
  • Councillor Dobson (St Charles) began with “We pray” and ended with “Amen”
  • Councillor Lukes (South Winnipeg) prayed for guidance from an unnamed guide
  • Councillor Wyatt (Transcona) recited the Lord’s Prayer, and
  • Councillor Browaty (North Kildonan) opened a meeting with “O eternal almighty God, from whom all power and wisdom come. We are assembled here before thee to frame such laws as may tend to the welfare and prosperity of our city. Grant, o merciful God, we pray thee, that we may desire only that which is in accordance with thy will, that we may seek it with wisdom, know it with certainty and accomplish it perfectly, for the glory and honour of thy name and for the welfare of all thy people. Amen.”

While the first few examples above skirt the intent of the Supreme Court ruling to varying degrees, the last two prayers blatantly violate it.

What Can You Do?

No-PrayerIf the continuing practice of allowing overtly religious prayers at Winnipeg’s City Hall concerns you, please write to the mayor and your city councillor to call for an end to invocation prayers at meetings. Or, as an alternative to ending the practice altogether, ask your councillor to recite a prayer of your choosing, and submit a suggestion that is compatible with Humanism. (There are some great examples here.)

Below is a sample letter that you can use as a starting point to write to your councillor if you’re not exactly sure what to say. Just copy and paste it; then adapt the wording to fit your own opinion or circumstances as desired.

Dear Mayor Bowman, Ms. Sharma (Chairperson – Governance Committee of Council), and members of City Council:

As a constituent of the City of Winnipeg, I am writing to call for an end to invocation prayers at the City of Winnipeg council meetings in accordance with last year’s Supreme Court ruling, posted here: https://www.canlii.org/en/ca/scc/doc/2015/2015scc16/2015scc16.html.

I commend the councillors who have recited invocations from varied religions, as well as Humanism. I would only hope that they continue to recite these types of invocations, if the City continues with the practice.

While it is true that some councillors do read a generic prayer without the mention of a deity (a prayer nonetheless), others do not. A number of councillors cite “God” or “Lord”, which I can only assume is the Christian god; other councillors have mentioned a spiritual guide, alternated among prayers from religious, or asked for guidance, although it is uncertain from whom.

After a review of the Supreme Court ruling by its legal department, Winnipeg City Council decided that it would continue reciting prayers. In reviewing those recited since the ruling, it would appear that the City is trying to be benevolently neutral. However, the Court stated that benevolent neutrality is not compatible with true neutrality, which is what governments should be practicing.

I submit to you the following excerpts from the Supreme Court ruling to support my call for the end of invocation prayers at the City of Winnipeg council meetings:

[78] “… State neutrality means … that the state must neither encourage nor discourage any form of religious conviction whatsoever. 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… “

[132] “… state neutrality is assured when the state neither favours nor hinders any particular religious belief, that is, when it shows respect for all postures towards religion, including that of having no religious beliefs whatsoever, while taking into account the competing constitutional rights of the individuals affected.”

[133] “… abstaining does not amount to taking a stand in favour of atheism or agnosticism. The difference, which, although subtle, is important, can be illustrated easily. A practice according to which a municipality’s officials, rather than reciting a prayer, solemnly declared that the council’s deliberations were based on a denial of God would be just as unacceptable. The state’s duty of neutrality would preclude such a position, the effect of which would be to exclude all those who believe in the existence of a deity.”

[134] “… there is a distinction between unbelief and true neutrality. True neutrality presupposes abstention, but it does not amount to a stand favouring one view over another. No such inference can be drawn from the state’s silence. In this regard, I will say that the benevolent neutrality to which the Court of Appeal referred is not really compatible with the concept of true neutrality…”

[137] “…The purpose of neutrality is instead to ensure that the state is, and appears to be, open to all points of view regardless of their spiritual basis. Far from requiring separation, true neutrality requires that the state neither favour nor hinder any religion, and that it abstain from taking any position on this subject. Even if a religious practice engaged in by the state is “inclusive”, it may nevertheless exclude non-believers…”

Optional: If you are still in favour of using some kind of invocation at the beginning of Council meetings, would you consider reciting one of my choosing, that would reflect my Humanist values and beliefs. I would be happy to suggest one.

I will continue to follow this issue and await your response.

Yours sincerely,

If you are not sure who your city councillor is, you can find out here.

With your help perhaps we can persuade the City to abide by the Supreme Court ruling.

Update: Click here for the next installment in this story.

 

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