The Duty of Neutrality Beyond Saguenay

Unconstitutional Prayers at Municipal Councils in British Columbia

A little known fact is that in 23 municipalities across the province, city councilors are unconstitutionally beginning their inaugural sessions of council with a prayer in direct violation of a ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada. 

To date, there has been no research to investigate the prayers given by elected officials in BC municipalities. In this report, a background into the Saguenay decision is given to provide background into the state duty of religious neutrality and the democratic imperative that is the separation of church and state. It examines prayers given by municipal councillors and invited guests at council meetings in order to monitor compliance with Saguenay. In pursuing a better understanding of prayers at the municipal level, this report shows that this practice is unconstitutional and does not reflect the diversity of British Columbia, and should thus be abolished. 

The Saguenay Decision:

In 2006, a resident of Saguenay, Quebec named Alain Simoneau raised a complaint to the mayor of Saguenay over his overtly religious beginnings of his regular sessions of council. On a regular basis, Mayor Jean Tremblay would say a prayer, cross himself, and then begin the council meeting. In addition, the council chamber was also decorated with a sacred heart washed in red light and a crucifix on the wall. As an atheist, Mr. Simoneau found such an act to be "uncomfortable," and violating the separation of church and state. As such, he filed a case with the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse (The Human and Youth Rights Commission) which found its way to the Supreme Court of Canada. 

In a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court found that the state has a "duty of religious neutrality" that was being violated by beginning a session of council with a prayer. Writing for the majority, Justice Gascon also called this duty of religious neutrality "a democratic imperative" as city councils need to be "neutral public space that is free of discrimination and in which true freedom to believe or not to believe is enjoyed by everyone equally."

Since Saguenay, many municipalities have rightfully opted to end prayers in their council meetings altogether. In British Columbia, 23 have chosen to continue. 

Method:

In order to determine which municipalities were unconstitutionally beginning council meetings with a prayer, BCHA researchers sent emails to every municipality in BC to ask if prayers were part of their routine business. but were met with a low response rate. As such, researchers visited the municipal website, and located the agenda, minutes, and where possible an audio/video recording of the most recent inaugural (post Saguenay) meeting. Municipalities found to have included prayer(s) in their inaugural meeting were recorded in a table, along with additional information about the person who delivered the prayer. In order to verify whether or not regular meetings of councils included prayer(s), researchers selected three to five recent meetings from the council (post-April 2015) and inspected the agendas, minutes, and where possible, any audio/video recordings of these meetings for prayer(s). If researchers were unable to find agendas, minutes, or recordings of inaugural or regular council meetings, they were instructed to contact the municipality directly by email and/or phone. Where instances of prayer were identified, researchers recorded the name, affiliation, and gender of the person delivering the prayer. In order to capture the specific content of the
prayers, researchers copied verbatim written minutes or transcribed audio/video recordings of the prayers when these were available.

Key Findings

We found that the following municipalities are continuing to begin their inaugural council meetings with a prayer, despite the unanimous ruling to the contrary in Saguenay from the Supreme Court of Canada. 

100 Mile House

Armstrong

Chilliwack

Clearwater

Creston

Dawson Creek

Lake Cowichan

The City of Langley

The Township of Langley

Nanaimo

Nelson

North Vancouver

Parksville

Peachland

Port Coquitlam

Qualicum Beach

Saanich

Spallumcheen

Terrace

Trail

Victoria

White Rock

Williams Lake

 
  • Prayers done at municipal councils are 100% Christian. In contrast, 44.6% of British Columbians identify as Christian
  • 73.9% of all prayers were done by men, while only 49% of British Columbians identify as male
  • Every municipalities but one had only one prayer in their inaugural session
  • The District of Saanich featured two prayers: a ‘multi faith blessing’ and a ‘blessing,’
    both of which were delivered by members of the clergy of Christian sects

Responses from Municipalities

As the Supreme Court ruling in question was handed down in 2015, BC municipalities have had years to change their procedures. Despite this, letters were sent to every municipality who was in violation of Saguenay in order to give them an opportunity to amend their bylaws to remove ignorance as a possible defence. The City and Township of Langley, Spallumcheen, and Trail have since amended their policies to remove prayer from their future council meetings. Seven municipalities did not respond. 

This work is not possible without generous donations from BCHA supporters. If you would like to see more research in 2021, feel free to click the link below to help with our end of year fundraising. 

 



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