An analysis of prayers in the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, 2003-2019
It may come as a surprise to many, but before every sitting of the BC Legislature, the Speaker invites an MLA to lead the chamber in prayer. MLAs are given the option of delivering a prayer from a list of five ‘Standard Prayers’ or one of their own devising. As a result, the prayers delivered in the BC Legislature can vary considerably, ranging from sectarian prayers invoking the name of Jesus, to attempts at poetry, to partisan attacks.
To date, no study has sought to investigate these daily prayers – to better understand their content, and the practices that surround them. The goal of the study is to create a comprehensive understanding of prayer in the BC Legislature. It examines prayers delivered in the Legislature from October 6, 2003, when video recordings were made available, to February 12, 2019, the end of the 3rd Session of the 41st Legislature (N=873). In pursuing a better understanding the nature of prayer in the BC Legislature, the report seeks to establish the extent to which this practice fairly reflects the diversity of BC, and inform inquiry into whether or not this practice is is acceptable in a modern, multicultural province.
Before examining and analyzing the prayers themselves, the report surveys various controversies surrounding legislative prayer in Canada, and examines the arguments emerging from these controversies. In addition to the highly influential Canadian Supreme Court decisions in Saguenay declaring the practice of opening municipal councils with a prayer to be a practice that discriminates against non-believers and which violates the state’s duty of religious neutrality, legislative prayer also:
- Trivializes a sacred act – Many faith traditions consider prayer to be a highly personal and sacred act. This act is trivialized when politicians weave partisan jabs into their prayers.
- Promotes a specific denomination over others – Even the most ecumenical of language will imply something about the nature of a god, or the type of relationship that adherents should have with that god, thereby elevating one denomination over others. Politicians are ill-equipped to navigate the delicate distinctions between denominations which have fuelled sectarian conflict for millennia, and in fact their attempting to do so would be unconstitutional.
- Promotes a particular religion over others – Crafting a universal ‘non-denominational’ prayer that will encompass all the diversity of religions and faith traditions is impossible. Instead, we see ‘non-sectarian’ prayers adopting Christian and Abrahamic structure and language – ending in ‘amen’ and referring to a deity as ‘Lord’ or ‘Heavenly Father.’
- Is inherently exclusive – Reserving time for ‘prayer’ at the start of a meeting excludes both non-believers and those whose faith traditions do not include prayer, or even prayer in this form.
- Excludes non-believers – The act of opening sittings with a prayer favours religious over irreligious beliefs, thereby excluding non-believers.
While they are available on video, the contents of prayers delivered in the BC Legislature are not transcribed into the record by Hansard. As a result, we first employed a team of over 50 volunteers to transcribe all available prayers. In order to ensure reliable results, these were then coded by two coders, with a third checking for intercoder reliability. Prayers were coded for a variety of factors including structure, content, and religiosity. Quantitative analysis was then used to identify trends within the data.
- We categorize 71.2% of all the prayers delivered in the BC Legislature as religious. Of these, we were able to identify the religion for 21.7%.
- Of the prayers where we could identify the religion, 93.1% of these were identified as ‘Christian,’ and Christian prayers represented 20.2% of all of the prayers delivered in the BC Legislature.
- 91.9% of prayers adopted a prayer structure by ending in ‘Amen,’ and 53.8% of prayers included the name of a deity. Even 88.7% of the prayers coded as ‘secular’ were found to end in ‘Amen.’
- NDP MLAs were marginally more likely to deliver secular prayers, compared with Liberal MLAs (31.4% vs. 26.0% of prayers).
- Liberal MLAs were significantly more likely to deliver Christian prayers, with 25.4% of prayers given by Liberal MLAs being Christian, compared with 9.2% of prayers delivered by NDP MLAs.
- For both parties, the number of sectarian and Christian prayers have been steadily increasing.
- There has been a steady increase in the amount of First Nations content in prayers, though only 6.0% of prayers contained First Nations content, and the vast majority of this content (85.7%) was the use of a single word.
- NDP MLAs were significantly more likely to include First Nations content than Liberal MLAs (11.7% versus 0.2%).
- Ten (10) prayers were found to have overt partisan content.
- MLAs are given the option of delivering one of five standard prayers, or a prayer of their own devising. The number of MLAs choosing either option was split evenly (50.0%).
- Liberal MLAs were significantly more likely to use standard prayers than NDP MLAs (64.0% vs. 35.0% of prayers).
- NDP MLAs were more likely to make alterations to the standard prayers when they used them, altering the standard prayers 55.1% of the time, compared with Liberal MLAs who only altered the standard prayers they used 22.5% of the time.
- The use of the standard prayers is on a steady decline, with more MLAs opting to deliver prayers of their own devising.
Prayer Length and Participation
- Religious prayers were generally found to be longer than secular ones.
- Liberal MLAs used 1.8 times more words when they were delivering a sectarian prayer, while NDP MLAs used 1.2 times as many words.
- Despite Christian prayers only making up 20.2% of the total prayers given in the BC Legislature, because they were significantly longer, they were composed of 25.6% of the 70,079 words used in prayers.
- The overall trend for MLAs of both parties is that prayers are getting longer.
- The number of MLAs delivering prayers is steadily declining over time, and a small number of MLAs are delivering most of the prayers.
We found that fewer MLAs are delivering prayers, and that prayers are getting longer and more religious. Looking at demographic data, we concluded that the types of prayers delivered in the BC Legislature do not reflect the diversity of beliefs in the province. Every non-Christian religion, with the exception to Judaism, was under-represented in the category of sectarian prayers and by all prayers in general. Additionally, there was no apparent mention of Sikhism, despite Sikh’s making up nearly 5% of the population of BC. Prayer in the BC Legislature also entirely excluded non-believers, despite their constituting as much as 64% of the population.
Prayer in the BC Legislature favours Christianity over other faith traditions, favors religious belief over irreligious belief, and it violates the state’s duty of religious neutrality. This report concludes by recommending that the BC Legislature abolish the practice of opening sittings with a prayer, and that it be replaced with nothing, a First Nations territorial acknowledgement, or a time for silent reflection. Should the BC Legislature wish to reform this practice, rather than abolishing it, the report concludes with several options designed to render the practice less discriminatory.
Our dataset of the transcribed prayers, and their codings, is available through the Open Science Foundation.
Banner photo credit: Ryan Bushby, Wikimedia Commons