OTTAWA (CCN) — The Supreme Court of Canada ruled April 15 that the Saguenay mayor and council must stop praying before meetings and pay damages to an atheist who complained of discrimination.
The decision could affect the practices of cities and towns across Canada as well as the House of Commons, though the court did not rule on the Commons prayer while acknowledging it takes place.
Alain Simoneau had complained to the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal of discrimination because the Saguenay mayor and council pray before their official meetings. The tribunal ruled he had been discriminated against and ordered the mayor and council to pay compensatory and punitive damages of $30,000.
Saguenay Mayor Jean Tremblay began soliciting funds to fight for the right to pray at council meetings and appealed the tribunal ruling to the Quebec Court of Appeal, which overturned it.
The Supreme Court of Canada has reinstated the tribunal’s judgment and ordered the payment of the original fine plus interest.
“The prayer recited by the municipal council in breach of the state’s duty of neutrality resulted in a distinction, exclusion and preference based on religion — that is, based on Mr. Simoneau’s atheism — which, in combination with the circumstances in which the prayer was recited, turned the meetings into a preferential space for people with theistic beliefs,” wrote Justice Clement Gascon for eight of the justices. Justice Rosalie Abella wrote a partial concurrence with the decision.
The mayor and council participated in a way favourable to their beliefs, the decision said. “Although non-believers could also participate, the price for doing so was isolation, exclusion and stigmatization.”
“This impaired Mr. Simoneau’s right to exercise his freedom of conscience and religion,” he said.
The tribunal found Simoneau “experienced a strong feeling of isolation and exclusion” that was “more than trivial or insubstantial.”
The court also used Tremblay’s words against him, quoting him as saying, “I’m in this fight because I worship Christ. When I get to the hereafter, I’m going to be a little proud. I’ll be able to say to him: “I fought for you; I even went to trial for you.”
The court noted that at the tribunal he admitted saying those words and added: “It’s true we place much emphasis on that because we have faith. And because we want to show it.”
“These comments confirm that the recitation of the prayer at the council’s meetings was above all else a use by the council of public powers to manifest and profess one religion to the exclusion of all others,” Gascon wrote.
The court noted the respondents — the City of Saguenay and Tremblay — had referred to the reference to the supremacy of God in the Canadian Charter, but this reference “cannot lead to an interpretation of freedom of conscience and religion that authorizes the state to consciously profess a theistic faith.”
Major cities like Ottawa and Windsor, Ont., and Calgary, said they would stop saying prayers while they studied the impact of the court ruling.
Tremblay is one of the few Quebec politicians to openly talk about his Catholic faith. On April 16, he said he was “disappointed” by the Supreme Court’s ruling and said although he would not oppose the court, Quebec residents should “stand up” for their traditions.
Bishop Andre Rivest of Chicoutimi, Quebec, the diocese in which Saguenay is located, said he was not surprised by the ruling.
“I supported the mayor, so I’m obviously disappointed. I’m the pastor of a region where about 95 per cent of the population is Catholic, so praying is in our population’s nature,” he said.
Though the Quebec Lay Movement heralded the decision as a major victory, University of Montreal constitutional specialist Stephane Beaulac stressed that the main argument coming out of the ruling is the importance of the neutrality of the state.
“Here, the Supreme Court sets the record straight and takes into account Canadian reality as it is. It is not a decision against Catholicism, since its content might be extrapolated to all religions. It is the idea of a public office not being associated with any religion that is the backbone of the ruling. Tremblay can still be Catholic: However, he can’t use his position to promote his faith,” he said. — with files from Catholic News Service