Oct 27, 2021 Letters
A decision of the Supreme Court of Canada dated April 15, 2015 (2015 SCC 16) will no doubt be seen as bold and revolutionary in view of current attempts to separate church from state in all Western Civilisation. It will serve as a guide if not a precedent in all countries with similar constitutional rights and an independent Judiciary.
Alain Simoneau, an atheist and resident of Saguenay, Quebec, and a regular at council meetings objected to the practice of the recitation of Catholic prayers by the mayor and councillor. A sacred heart statue and a crucifix also adorned the walls of the council.
This he testified, caused him to experience feelings of isolation and exclusion thus violating his rights to freedom of religion and conscience as outlined in both the Quebec Charter and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
With the help of Movement laique Quebecois (MLQ) he took his grievances to the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal which agreed with him. However the Quebec Court of Appeal felt otherwise. It reasoned that prayers expressed universal values and that the sacred heart statue and crucifix were works of art and not religious.
The Supreme Court of Canada in a rare unanimous decision ruled that the practice of reciting any form of prayers at the start of council meetings constituted a violation of Charter rights.
In doing so the highest court in the land rejected the argument the prayers were justified on the basis of tradition and that council’s attempt at reasonable accommodation by inviting those with objections to leave the chambers during prayers and then re-enter, far from tempering the discrimination only exacerbated it. This identifies and stigmatises the non-believer. Quebec has a long tradition of the Catholic and Anglican churches being quite influential in government policies and practices, but the court felt it was time to change a practice even though it was followed since the nineteenth century.
Justice LeBel writing for the court stated that Canadian Society has given rise to a concept of NEUTRALITY, according to which the State must not interfere with religion and beliefs. This requires that the State neither favour nor hinder any particular belief or non-belief. Canadian Cultural landscape includes many traditional and heritage practices that are religious in nature. Sponsorship of one religious tradition by the State in breach of its duty of neutrality amounts to discrimination against all other such traditions as it creates a distinction, exclusion or preference that has the effect of nullifying or impairing the right to full and equal recognition and exercise of freedom of conscience and religion.
The court looked at the purpose and effect of the practice and opined that even a Non-denominational PRAYER is a religious practice that excludes atheists and agnostics and the interference is more than TRIVIAL or INSUBSTANTIAL. Any form of religious expression under the guise of cultural and historical reality or heritage breaches the duty of NEUTRALITY.
Furthermore the expression “Supremacy of God” in the preamble of the Charter cannot be relied on to deny the guarantees expressly provided in the Charter.
Pursuit of the ideal in a free and democratic society requires the state to encourage everyone to participate freely in public life regardless of their beliefs thus preserving the multicultural nature of society.
Some public bodies have replaced their prayers with a moment of silent reflection to show respect for cultural diversity. Any country, in particular the Western democracies that are member States of the United Nations, may now have to remind themselves of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states in part “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion…”
Finally, if they profess to be secular and has a Constitutional Document protecting freedom of conscience and religion, this decision may guide them towards that historical elusive ideal of separating Church from State.
What is sometimes lacking is not the law but those who would challenge customary discriminatory practices. One suggestion is to start all meetings with a period of silence during which time anyone can reflect on the occasion but this also may be a challenge to those who cannot be quiet for a few minutes and unable to turn off their cell phones.
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