BC municipalities 'prayer-free' as Parksville commits to religious neutrality in future meetings

The BC Humanist Association (BCHA) is declaring the end of municipal prayers in British Columbia (BC) following a commitment from the City of Parksville that there will not be prayers in the City's next inaugural council meeting.

Ian Bushfield, Executive Director, BC Humanist Association:

“Nine years after the Saguenay ruling, we’re thrilled to be able to declare BC’s municipal council meetings prayer-free.

"We will remain vigilant as we continue playing whac-a-mole with local politicians who privilege religion over nonreligion in the public sphere. We strongly encourage anyone considering bringing prayers back to look closely at the responses we received from municipalities ranging from Belcarra to Vancouver.”

In its recent report, We Yelled At Them Until They Stopped, the BCHA identified seven municipalities in BC that included prayers in their 2022 inaugural council meetings. In 2018, 26 included prayers in their inaugural meetings. No communities opened regular meetings with prayers. Since publishing the report, the BCHA secured commitments from each of those municipalities to ensure that all future meetings are strictly secular.

Dr Teale Phelps Bondaroff, Research Coordinator, BC Humanist Association:

“I am pleased to see municipalities finally committing to upholding their duty of religious neutrality by discontinuing the unconstitutional practice of including prayers in their inaugural meetings. This is a significant step towards ensuring that all residents, regardless of their religious beliefs, or lack thereof, feel equally respected and included in our public spaces.”

In 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that opening council meetings with prayers was an unconstitutional violation of the state’s duty of religious neutrality. Since then, most municipalities in Canada have ceased the practice; however, in auditing compliance with the ruling, the BCHA has identified multiple scofflaws across the country.

The BCHA wrote to the seven municipalities in November asking for commitments to respect the duty of religious neutrality. Only the Cities of Parksville and Vancouver refused. The BCHA worked with pro-bono counsel to press for a response, raising the spectre of legal challenges.

Last month, the City of Vancouver acknowledged that the multi-faith prayers delivered at its 2022 inaugural ceremony were “a breach of the duty of religious neutrality.” They committed to ensuring that future inaugural meetings comply with the law.

In late April, Parksville stated, "At this time, the City has no intention of including prayers at its inaugural meeting after the next municipal election in 2026.” The BCHA sought further clarification and last week lawyers for the City replied:

  1. Should Mayor [Doug] O’Brien be re-elected in 2026, he commits to there not being any religious prayers at the inaugural Council meeting; and,
  2. Should Mayor O’Brien not be re-elected in 2026, Chief Administrative Officer Kehler commits to advising the Mayor-Elect and newly elected Council of its obligation to ensure religious neutrality and to strongly recommend that the Mayor-Elect not include any religious prayers at the inaugural Council meeting.

Following these commitments, the BCHA is dropping the threat of legal action against the City of Parksville.

The BCHA identified Belcarra, Colwood, Delta, Parksville, Tumbler Ridge, Vancouver and West Kelowna as having religious content in their 2022 inaugural council meetings. In its 2020 report, the BCHA found no BC municipalities with prayers in regular meetings.

The BCHA has since identified prayers in the regular and inaugural meetings in Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario municipalities. Further research into the remaining provinces will be published in the coming months as part of the Saguenay Project.

Parksville's April 30, 2024 letter

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