Prayer to Open Public Meetings

Last fall in Town of Greece v. Galloway the United States Supreme Court held in a 5-4 decision  that the town’s practice of opening its town board meetings with a prayer offered by members of the clergy does not violate the Establishment Clause when the practice is consistent with the tradition long followed by Congress and state legislatures, the town does not discriminate against minority faiths in determining who may offer a prayer, and the prayer does not coerce participation with non-adherents.  Now the Supreme Court of Canada has issued its opinion.

The Globe and mail reported:

Cities and towns across Canada began to review their tradition of reciting prayers at the start of council meetings after the Supreme Court ruled that the practice in one Quebec community violated religious liberties.

In a unanimous judgment tackling faith and freedoms in Canadian public life, the court ordered the city of Saguenay to cease its prayer inside its council chambers and pay damages to the citizen who fought the case on the basis his rights as an atheist had been trampled.

The court awarded the citizen, Alain Simoneau, more than $30,000 in damages, and issued a legal rebuke to the outspoken and staunchly devout mayor of Saguenay, Jean Tremblay. The mayor had invoked history and Quebec’s Roman Catholic heritage to justify his council’s prayer, an argument the court rejected.

“Sponsorship of one religious tradition by the state in breach of its duty of neutrality amounts to discrimination against all other such traditions,” Justice Clément Gascon, from Quebec, said in writing for the court.

Prayer is a religious practice, the court said. “Even if it is said to be inclusive, it may nevertheless exclude non-believers.”

The judgment affirmed governments’ responsibility to remain neutral, and its impact reached immediately into municipalities across Canada. Mayors in Ottawa, Lévis, Que., and Dieppe, N.B., began to review the towns’ practice of reciting prayers, and some already vowed to jettison them.

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