Saguenay prayer case heard at Supreme Court

By Deborah Gyapong

Canadian Catholic News

OTTAWA (CCN) — The Supreme Court of Canada heard arguments Oct. 14 on whether prayers before city council meetings in Quebec are discriminatory against non-believers.

The case involves Saguenay Mayor Jean Tremblay, a Catholic, who permits prayers before city council meetings and the display of religious objects on city property. Alain Simoneau complained of discrimination to the Quebec human rights tribunal. The case worked its way up to the Quebec Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal last January.

“The mayor has right to practice religion as he feels but he does not have the right to impose it on anyone else through his imposition of a public ritual,” said Luc Alarie for the appellants, Alain Simoneau and the Quebec Secular Movement.

The mayor was “making the council chamber a place of worship” and “members of the public have a right not to be subjected to this,” Alarie said.

Simoneau also objected to the Sacred Heart statue and crucifix in the council chamber. Simoneau was not objecting, however, to every religious symbol such as the cross on the Quebec flag or the words in the national anthem because they reflect the cultural heritage of Quebec but have been emptied of their religious content, he said. Nor was he objecting to the prayer said by members of Parliament in the House of Commons, because members of the public are not present at the time.

Richard Bergeron, attorney for the City of Saguenay et. al., pointed out the decision of the Quebec human rights tribunal ordered the practice of prayer be ceased and that all religious symbols be removed. It also awarded Simoneau moral and punitive damages.

The personal aspects of expressing religious belief, including that of the mayor, must exist, said Bergeron.

Secularism has many different definitions and models, Bergeron said. On one extreme is secularism that excludes all religious practice or symbols from public life. The kind of secularism reflected in court decisions has looked at a form of secularism that balances individual rights with collective rights based on tradition and history, he said.

Bergeron said the council prayer is not religious in the sense of worship, but it is religious in the sense of requesting the grace of God. It is more in the sense of moral duty and tradition than a religious practice, he said.

When the City of Saguenay drew up its bylaw regarding the prayer, it looked into case law and read that if the prayer was non-denominational it will pass the test, he said. It represented a will to “maintain a tradition and not to promulgate a religion.”

Bergeron warned against an allergy against religious practice, that everything with a religious connotation creates an infringement, even if it is not coercive. The appellant was not coerced or forced to do anything, he said. “We look at the evidence, we do not get the impression he was traumatized to a huge extent.”

Canada is not an atheist state, Bergeron said. In the Constitution’s preamble, it says the state is based on the supremacy of God and the rule of law.

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