Column: Ruling means council doesn’t have a prayer

Under the guise of a ruling on the place of the prayer at Saguenay’s City Hall, the Supreme Court of Canada has put a mirror up to the face of all Canadian legislators.

The onus for maintaining a secular public space is on them and not on the individuals who toil in the public service and/or who interact with their administrations.

Moreover, neither the preservation of a historical religious heritage nor the notion that a given faith is that of the majority should override the principle of a neutral state.

On that basis, the crucifix is more likely to eventually come down from the walls of institutions such as the Quebec national assembly than kippas, turbans and religious veils such as the hijab are to be banned from Canada’s federal, provincial or municipal workplaces.

There is also little in the subtext of the ruling to sustain the federal case for a ban on the face-covering niqab from federal citizenship oath ceremonies.

Wednesday’s judgment dealt specifically with the practice of Saguenay’s municipal council to open its public meetings with a prayer. The court found that it infringed on the fundamental rights of non-believers. The immediate consequence of that finding is to force Mayor Jean Tremblay – a devout

Catholic who had cast this battle as nothing less than a religious crusade – to abandon the practice.
The same goes for the dozens of municipal councils across Canada that begin their deliberations with a prayer of some sort.

According to the Court, it is not because the text of a prayer is non-denominational that it is non-discriminatory or that it respects the principle of the neutrality of the state. The recitation of a prayer remains a fundamentally religious act, a fact about which the court had this to say: “the state may not, by expressing its own religious preference, promote the participation of believers to the exclusion of non-believers or vice-versa … 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.

(As an aside, the House of Commons prayer, whose text is identical to the latest version used in Saguenay, may be protected by parliamentary privilege.)

This is just the latest chapter in an increasingly heated national debate over the balance between religious freedom and the secular character of Canada’s public institutions. In its unanimous ruling, the top court drops more than a few hints as to how it sees the way forward.

Although it refrains from pronouncing on the place of religious symbols on the walls of public institutions, the judgment suggests that their presence – if challenged – is unlikely to be saved by the argument that they reflect a historical or cultural heritage.

That’s the rationale most commonly used to defend the crucifix that hangs on the wall of the national assembly.
But perhaps the part of the judgment that will be read most carefully by justice officials and their political masters is the section that spells out that a neutral public space is not one that obliterates religious diversity. In paragraph 74 of the judgment, and almost as an aside from its core narrative, Justice Clement Gascon writes: “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.”

He adds for good measure: “ a secular state does not – and cannot – interfere with the beliefs or practices of a religious group unless they conflict with or harm overriding public interests.”

That amounts to a red light flashing in the face of any government contemplating – as Quebec recently did – the imposition of a secular dress code on its public sector employees.

It also suggests that the federal government, should it want the court to give its ban on face-covering niqabs at citizenship oath ceremonies a green light, may have to come up with a pretty compelling demonstration of the “overriding public interest” served by such a measure.

The prayer “God, eternal and almighty, who has all power and wisdom, we are assembled in your presence to ensure the welfare and prosperity of our city. Grant us, we beseech you, light and energy to our deliberations to promote the honour and glory of your holy name and the spiritual and material happiness of our city. So be it.”

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Copyright 2015
Torstar Syndication Services

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