Today, Members of Parliament (MPs) voted against a motion that would have abolished the practice of opening daily sessions of the House of Commons with prayer. Nevertheless, secularists are pledging to continue the fight to end the practice of legislative prayers.
Since 1877, the Speaker of the House of Commons has read a prayer at the beginning of each day’s sitting. The current prayer begins “Almighty God” and ends in “Amen.” It was last updated in 1994.
On Tuesday, MPs debated an opposition day motion from Bloc Québécois MP Martin Champoux (Drummond) that would have amended Standing Order 30 to remove the prayer that is read by the Speaker on a daily basis before the beginning of the business of the House. The motion was voted on this afternoon, and failed 266-56.
“Yesterday, we heard an impassioned defense of the importance of secularism and the state’s duty of religious neutrality,” said BCHA Executive Director Ian Bushfield. “Today we were disappointed that a majority of MPs voted against that duty. The fight for secularism and the neutrality of our institutions will continue and we ask all Canadians to take up this fight.”
The vote was largely along party lines with members of the Bloc Québécois, NDP and Greens voting in favour, while Liberals and Conservatives voted against. NDP MPs Charlie Angus (Timmins-James Bay), Daniel Blaikie (Elmwood-Trascona), Rachel Blaney (North Island-Powell River) and Lori Idlout (Nunavut) voted against the motion, while Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith (Beaches-East York) voted in favour.
With little notice of the motion, the BC Humanist Association (BCHA) and its supporters began writing and tweeting at MPs as the debate was happening on Tuesday. A few MPs took the time to share their support for the motion.
Yes, I will be voting in favour of eliminating the daily prayer before the House opens every day, without any intent to disrespect anyone’s beliefs. It simply no longer reflects Canada’s diversity nor the fact that the majority of people in my riding are non-religious.— Randall Garrison (@r_garrison) May 10, 2022
A small but worthwhile change that is long overdue. https://t.co/EA9fZKp2M3— Nate Erskine-Smith (@beynate) May 10, 2022
During the debates, critics of the motion argued the Bloc should have brought the issue forward through the House’s Procedure and House Affairs Committee (PROC) or to a day of debate that is set aside for a review of the Standing Orders, which will occur in the coming weeks. The BCHA is encouraging supporters to write to their MPs in advance of that debate and ask them to support a repeal of the daily prayers.
The BCHA has launched a letter-writing campaign asking MPs to abolish the daily prayer in the House of Commons.
“During the debate on Tuesday, several MPs claimed to have never heard about this issue from their constituents,” said Bushfield. “We know it’s been raised before by constituents and other MPs. We are launching this new campaign to make sure MPs hear from the majority of Canadians who support the separation of church and state."
“It was disappointing to see so few MPs actively engaging in the substance of the issue and standing up to support the separation of religion and government,” said BCHA Research Coordinator Dr. Teale Phelps Bondaroff. “Instead of taking the opportunity to reflect on the duty of religious neutrality and how to ensure that Parliament is a welcoming and inclusive space that reflects the diversity of Canadians, they chose to chastise the Bloc for using their opposition day to present a perfectly valid motion.”
“Opening sessions of Parliament with prayer is exclusionary - it tells people of non-majority religions and non-believers that their views do not belong,” said Phelps Bondaroff. “This practice 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.”
Authors of an article who studied the more than 870 prayers read out in the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia between 2003 and 2019 concluded that other legislatures would do well to adopt Quebec's approach to prayers. They said:
The prayers could be replaced with a time for silent reflection, similar to the practice in the Quebec National Assembly.
The most straightforward step would be to abolish the practice of legislative prayer completely.
We are being used as a model.