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Canada’s Supreme Court orders Quebec city to stop praying at council meetings

Thaddeus Baklinski Thaddeus Baklinski Follow Thaddeus

OTTAWA, April 15, 2015 (LifeSiteNews.com) – Canada’s Constitution may recognize the “supremacy of God,” but town councils cannot, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

In a unanimous decision, the high court said municipal councilors are no longer allowed to begin meetings with prayer.

The ruling is the final result of a complaint against the mayor of Saguenay, Quebec, by Alain Simoneau and the Mouvement laëque québécois (Quebec Secular Movement), which objected to prayer at the beginning of council meetings and to two religious objects – a statue and a crucifix – being displayed in the council chambers.

In addition to ordering Mayor Jean Tremblay and Saguenay councilors to stop praying at council meetings, the court said they must pay Simoneau $15,000 in compensatory damages, $15,000 in punitive damages, and additional indemnity and costs of $3,500.

Dr. Christian Elia, executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights League (CCRL), which acted as an intervener in the case, said the Supreme Court decision was extremely disappointing because by demonstrating a preference for "non-religious belief – disbelief," the court is doing nothing to ensure state neutrality.

"In a sense, by prohibiting respectful, non-proselytizing, non-coercive prayer, the court is showing a clear preference to non-religious believers over religious believers, and gives an untenable status to secularism and atheism, which are themselves beliefs. So there is no balance and no reconciliation among various beliefs in this ruling but shows a preference for one belief – secularism – over all other beliefs," Elia told LifeSiteNews.

"This is not an example of a true, authentic and robust pluralism," Elia stressed. "In true pluralism, religious believers and non-believers can share the public square, but this decision means the public square can no longer be shared."

The case was originally taken to the Quebec Human Rights Commission, which in 2008 ordered the Saguenay council to cease praying before meetings. Mayor Jean Tremblay ignored the order, saying the Commission's decision was non-binding, and countered that the Commission's ruling was discriminatory against people who want to pray.

The complainants then took the case to the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal, which ruled in 2011 that prayer infringes on people’s freedom of conscience, noting that “since there were still vestiges of Catholicism in the prayer and religious symbols, the city was favoring one religion over others.”

The municipality was ordered to pay $30,000 to the plaintiff.

“I must be the first and only mayor in the world’s history to be punished for a 20-second prayer. I just don’t get it,” the staunchly Catholic mayor said in an interview at the time.

Mayor Tremblay, however, successfully appealed the Tribunal's ruling.

In 2013 the Quebec Court of Appeal overturned the ruling by the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal, and stated that reciting a prayer, and the presence of religious symbols in city hall, does not violate governmental religious neutrality.

In that decision, written by Justice Guy Gagnon, the appeal court said neutrality does not require “that society be cleansed of all denominational reality, including that which falls within its cultural history.”

The judge said the Christian symbols in Saguenay had been present in city hall for decades, but for a large part of Quebecers these symbols have lost their religious significance and are seen as merely historical artifacts.

Noting that Quebec is awash in Christian symbolism – including the religious reference in the French version of Canada’s national anthem, the white cross on Quebec’s flag, and the cross atop Mount Royal – Justice Gagnon wrote that nothing suggests that these symbols indicate the city of Saguenay is “under the yoke of the Catholic religion.”

“Examples of Christian symbolism abound without any evidence that they compromise the government’s neutrality,” the judge stated.

Alain Simoneau and the Mouvement laëque québécois then appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case in January 2014.

Mayor Tremblay told media following the announcement of the Supreme Court decision today that he would issue a statement at a news conference to be held at Saguenay City Hall on Thursday at 10:30 a.m.

The full text of the Supreme Court ruling is available here.

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