The mayor of Saguenay, Quebec, and his council members were wrong to open their public meetings with prayer. That was the message of a recent Supreme Court of Canada decision.[i] The Court was unanimous in its holding that public officials could not favour one religion over another. The use of the prayer in question, said the Court, was to favour one religious community: Christians, and in particular the Roman Catholic Church
Mr. Simoneau is an atheist living in Saguenay. He regularly attends the public meetings and was uncomfortable with the reciting of the prayer, the making of the sign of the cross by the mayor and council members after the prayer. He was also troubled by the religious symbols (crucifix and Sacred Heart statue) that were in the chamber. The mayor refused Simoneau’s request to stop the practise and remove the symbols.
With the help of the mouvement laïque québécois (MLQ), a group that advocates for secularism in government, Simoneau took his complaint to the Quebec human rights commission. The Commission refused to investigate the religious symbols but were of the view that the prayer was discriminatory and there was sufficient evidence to submit to the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal.
MLQ supported Simoneau’s application to the Tribunal. The Tribunal granted the application stating that the prayer showed a preference for one religion at the expense of others and breached the state’s duty of neutrality. The City and mayor were ordered to cease the recitation of the prayer, remove all religious symbols and to pay $30,000 in compensatory and punitive damages to Simoneau. The Quebec Court of Appeal overturned the Tribunal’s decision. The Court of Appeal said the City’s actions were not in violation of the religious neutrality of the state because the prayer was not identified with one particular religion and the religious symbols were works of art.
The Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) rejected the Court of Appeal’s decision. Given that Justice Gascon is from Quebec, he got to write the decision. Gascon noted that over the years there has developed a legal principle that says when it comes to religion the state must be neutral. It must not interfere in the area of religion and beliefs. That means it cannot favour nor hinder any belief or non-belief.
Since Canada is a free and democratic society, said Gascon, it must encourage everyone, regardless of beliefs, to participate freely in public life. That public space must be neutral. There must be no coercion in matters of spirituality. Every person’s freedom and dignity must be protected. Especially is this so in light of the fact that Canada is a multicultural society.
Justice Gascon noted that state neutrality does not mean that the state cannot celebrate its religious heritage. However, it must not do so in a way that discriminates against other religious and non-religious communities. The statements from the mayor made it clear that he saw his use of prayer as a personal obligation to maintain the faith of Christ. “I’m in this battle because I worship Christ,” he said. “When I get to the hereafter, I’m going to be able to be a little proud. I’ll be able to say to Him: “I fought for You; I even went to trial for You”. There’s no better argument. It’s extraordinary. I’m in this fight because I worship Christ. I want to go to heaven and it is the most noble fight of my entire life.”[ii]
The mayor and his fellow councillors were of the view that the City has just as much right to claim religious freedom as any other citizen. The Supreme Court disagreed. The state is to have no religious opinion – it has no place on this field. It is to be neutral – plain and simple. “The state, I should point out,” said Justice Gascon, “does not have a freedom to believe or to manifest a belief.”[iii]
The Court’s reasoning will go a long way to ensure that the religious as well as the non-religious are protected from state interference in matters of conscience and religion. That is a good thing. The last thing we want, as people of faith, is to have the government enforcing its own religion on us. We do not want the state to be interfering with how we live our spiritual lives. It has no business telling us what we ought to believe or how we are to put those beliefs into practise. In matters of conscience the state is to be impotent.
Mr. Simoneau felt ostracized at the council meetings in Saguenay. The council members entered the chamber and prayed. The meeting began two minutes after the prayer. This was seen as a compromise for those who did not want to be present for the prayer – they could wait outside until the prayer was over. When the prayer ended the non-religious entered the chamber for the meeting to begin. The problem, of course, was that it made the non-religious feel they were “outed” for their conscience. Their lack of agreement with the prayers were on public display. It “resulted in a distinction, exclusion and preference based on religion — that is, based on Mr. Simoneau’s atheism” turning “the meetings into a preferential space for people with theistic beliefs.”[iv]
The principle of religious neutrality is a good one. However, it is still something that must be monitored with a jealous eye. I am concerned that it could be used to argue that any state recognition of a religious community, a religious institution, or religious individual could be in violation of this principle. In other words, I would not want to see the principle be seen as requiring a strict separation of church and state. I argue that there can never be a strict separation. For example, ministers of religion perform marriages in Canada. When they do so, they do it as an agent of the state. The Supreme Court has said that ministers of religion are not forced to perform weddings that would be against their religious belief.[v] Would it not be ironic if religious neutrality required ministers of religion to marry against their conscience?
Or consider religious schools. Most Christian elementary, secondary and universities issue diplomas and degrees recognized by the state. Would it not be an injustice for this principle of state neutrality to force such schools to maintain secular beliefs of the state as the price to pay for issuing state recognized diplomas?
Of course, I may be worrying unnecessarily so. But given the arguments being used recently in such cases as Trinity Western University law school case – I cannot but be wary.
[i] Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City), 2015 SCC 16: Supreme Court of Canada, judgement given by Gascon J., 15 April 2015, found online at: http://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/15288/index.do
[ii] Paragraph 116.
[iii] Paragraph 119.
[iv] Paragraph 120.
[v] Reference re Same-Sex Marriage,  3 S.C.R. 698, 2004 SCC 79, at paragraph 58.