The move would make Parliament an inclusive and welcoming space
Members of the BC Humanist Association are asking their Members of Parliament (MP) to vote in favour of a motion to end the practice of beginning each day’s sitting of the House of Commons with a prayer.
As part of its opposition day, Bloc Bloc Québécois MP Martin Champoux (Drummond) proposed a motion that would end the practice of opening daily sessions with a prayer. MPs are debating the motion today and a vote is expected tomorrow.
The motion says that the prayer should be scrapped because the House "respects the beliefs and non-beliefs of all parliamentarians and of the general public and it is committed to the principle of the separation of religion and the state, the diversity of views and freedom of conscience while upholding the secularism and religious neutrality of the state and out of a desire for inclusiveness."
“Nonreligious MPs like Randall Garrison stood in the House today and said they feel excluded by this practice,” said Ian Bushfield, Executive Director of the BCHA. Garrison, the NDP MP for Esquimalt—Saanich—Sooke, said during the debate that he had only been in the chamber for the prayers twice, once in solidarity following a tragic event and “once by accident.”
“The arguments being made by MPs to continue this practice were rejected by the Supreme Court seven years ago in the Saguenay decision, that ruled definitively that the practice of opening council meetings with prayer was a violation of the state’s duty of religions neutrality,” said Bushfield. “At a time when we see the danger posed by the encroachment of religion in government south of the border, parliamentarians must take this opportunity to defend a secular and multicultural society in Canada.”
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2015 that it was unconstitutional to begin a municipal council meeting with a prayer. The majority wrote that “because of the duty of religious neutrality with which it is required to comply, the state may not profess, adopt or favour one belief to the exclusion of all others.”
The Speaker of the House of Commons reads the prayer every morning before the cameras in the chamber have been turned on, and before members of the public and media are allowed inside.
“Opening sessions of Parliament with prayer is overtly exclusionary, telling people of non-majority religions and non-believers that their views do not belong,” said BCHA Research Coordinator Dr Teale Phelps Bondaroff. “This practice necessarily promotes one religious sect over others, and religion over non-religion, and is a clear violation of the state’s duty of religious neutrality. Everyone should be welcome in Parliament, but the practice of opening sessions with prayer excludes those from non-majority faith traditions and non-believers.”
Legislative Prayer Across Canada
There is considerable diversity of practice across the country when it comes to prayer and legislatures. The National Assembly in Quebec that abolished the practice in 1976 and Nova Scotia that abolished the practice in October 2021, while in New Brunswick, MLAs read Christian prayers for the Queen, the Lieutenant-Governor, Legislature and recite the Lord’s Prayer.
The BC Humanist Association has published a report detailing prayer in legislatures across Canada.
In British Columbia, sessions of the Legislature open with ‘prayers and reflection’ where MLAs deliver a prayer of their own devising. The BC Humanist Association has been studying the content of these prayers and published a number of studies on the practice, including the comprehensive ‘House of Prayers’ report.
The prayer that is currently delivered at the opening of Parliament by the Speaker reads:
“Almighty God, we give thanks for the great blessings which have been bestowed on Canada and its citizens, including the gifts of freedom, opportunity and peace that we enjoy. We pray for our sovereign, Queen Elizabeth, and the Governor General. Guide us in our deliberations as members of Parliament, and strengthen us in our awareness of our duties and responsibilities as members. Grant us wisdom, knowledge, and understanding to preserve the blessings of this country for the benefit of all and to make good laws and wise decisions. Amen.”
The Motion (Mr. Champoux, Drummond):
That, given that the House respects the beliefs and non-beliefs of all parliamentarians and of the general public and it is committed to the principle of the separation of religion and the state, the diversity of views and freedom of conscience while upholding the secularism and religious neutrality of the state and out of a desire for inclusiveness, the reading of the prayer at the opening of a sitting be abolished and replaced by a moment of reflection; and that, accordingly, Standing Order 30 be amended, in paragraphs (1) and (2), by substituting the following:
(1) A moment of reflection be observed every day at the meeting of the House before any business is entered upon.
(2) Not more than two minutes after the moment of reflection, the business of the House shall commence.