Responses to Municipal Prayer Report

At the end of November 2020, the BC Humanist Association (BCHA) released our report, The Duty of Neutrality Beyond Saguenay: Unconstitutional Prayers at Municipal Councils in British Columbia. This study investigates the practice of beginning municipal council meetings in British Columbia (BC) with a prayer, a practice that was found to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City), in 2015. We identified 23 BC municipalities that included prayer in their 2018 inaugural council meetings. None were found to do so in regular council meetings.

As part of our investigation, we reached out to these 23 municipalities and informed them of the Saguenay decision and the implications that it would have on their inaugural meetings. A number of these municipalities responded to us, and several of them pledged to bring their procedures at future meetings into compliance with the constitution. Some wrote that they would take our letter under advisement, and a number did not respond.

After releasing our report, a number of municipalities have expressed their commitment to ending prayers in their inaugural meetings. The Supreme Court ruling was clear that municipal governments have the “democratic imperative” to maintain true neutrality by abstaining from all religious activities. When officials engage in a religious practice, no matter how inclusive it may seem, it indicates a preference for that religious tradition over others. In refraining from religious practices, such as prayer, municipal governments create a neutral space where all citizens feel comfortable to participate.

Here we wanted to summarize the impact of work on these various municipalities.

We thank each municipality for their commitments so far and we look forward to following up with them in 2022 to ensure that all inaugural council meetings are in compliance with the Supreme Court ruling.

To learn more about prayer in municipal council meetings in British Columbia, read our full report or check out BCHA’s Research Coordinator, Teale Phelps Bondaroff’s, interview with CBC Radio Daybreak South host Chris Walker.

Key

:slightly_smiling_face: : Passed policy change preventing the problem from happening again.
:face_with_raised_eyebrow:Will take it under advisement.
:neutral_face:: No response.
:slightly_frowning_face:: Doubled down.

 

Municipality Current Commitment for 2022
Media coverage Response via media Previous response via correspondence Previous Summary of Response via Correspondence with the BCHA[1]
100 Mile House 🙁 My Cariboo Now "Study finds two Cariboo municipalities in violation of Saguenay Decision"

When asked about the study, 100 Mile House Mayor Mitch Campsall says he recalls no instances of religious prayer in District of 100 Mile House meetings.

Y No direction was received from Council to make changes.
Armstrong 🙂 Salmon Arm Observer "Prayer at North Okanagan council meetings a violation of religious neutrality: study"
Armstrong CAO Kevin Bertles responded to the report following a Morning Star inquiry.
“We don’t have a policy to do with inaugurations, so I’ve reviewed the Humanist report and we will come up with a policy to exclude an invocation of any kind,” Bertles said.

N -
    Kamloops Info News "No prayer? Some Okanagan councils chastised for violating 'duty of religious neutrality'"

Armstrong Mayor Chris Pieper said he wasn't aware that holding prayers at the beginning of council meetings wasn't allowed.

"I've been on council since the late eighties and whenever there was an election and we started a new council we had one of the ministers within our community give a prayer," he said. "We've had almost every church represented within our community."

Mayor Pieper said he would respect the Supreme Court ruling but he didn't agree that prayers shouldn't be allowed at council.

"They don't pray for us to do a good job, they pray for our community, they pray for strong leadership and honest leadership and integrity, that's what it's about," he said.

   
    Global News "Some Okanagan city councils unconstitutionally included prayer in meetings: report"

“I’ve found this to be a very unique tradition, a good tradition,” said Armstrong Mayor Chris Pieper.

“The inaugural meetings are usually very short so it really adds a bit of community to our council inauguration.”

The mayor said he and city staff were unaware of the Supreme Court ruling and simply carried on with the tradition. 

“I’ve not had one complaint from one person in our community about having a minister giving a reading at our very inaugural meeting,” Pieper said.
Pieper said he’d like the tradition to continue, but the issue is now up for discussion at an upcoming council meeting.
“We will do what is legally correct. If we can’t do it, we can’t do it,” Pieper said.

   
Chilliwack 🤨 Chilliwack Progress "Most municipalities no longer begin council sessions with prayer: BC Humanist report"

“After the inauguration, we received an email advising us of the Saguenay decision,” said City of Chilliwack spokesperson Jamie Leggatt.

“This was immediately flagged to ensure religious neutrality at future Council inaugurations.”

Y We will make a note of it for the next Inaugural Session that occurs.
Clearwater 😶     N -
Creston 🤨     Y Please know that we will make note of your concern for future Inaugural Council meeting agendas.
Dawson Creek 😶     N

-

Lake Cowichan 😶     N -
City of Langley 🙂     Y Council passed the following resolution: “That the correspondence from the BC Humanist Association dated January 22, 2020 regarding a request to confirm Council will take steps to ensure future inaugural sessions are compliant with the Supreme Court’s Ruling and will not include an invocation or prayer be received for information."
Township of Langley 😀     Y Summary: Amended the Council Procedure Bylaw in November 2019. This amended bylaw removed the invocation from the scheduled agenda and will not be included going forward.[2]
Nanaimo 🙂[3]     N -
Nelson 🤨     Y In the future, the perspective of religious neutrality will be provided to any incoming council for consideration.
North Vancouver 🤨     Y We will take this into consideration when it comes time to plan the next inaugural meeting following the 2022 general local election.

Parksville

🤨     Y Your email has been received and the information will be taken into consideration.

Peachland

🙂 Kamloops Info News "No prayer? Some Okanagan councils chastised for violating 'duty of religious neutrality'"

Peachland Mayor Cindy Fortin said she didn't agree with the prayer that was read out at council's inaugural meeting in 2018.

"Because it had traditionally been done over the decades, it was done again," Fortin said. "I definitely brought it up at the time that I didn't think we should be doing it."

Fortin said if she does run again in 2022 and wins, she'll make sure a prayer won't be readout.

"It's nothing personal against anyone's religion," she said. "I agree with the idea that church and state should be separate."

N -

 

  Global News "Some Okanagan city councils unconstitutionally included prayer in meetings: report"

The Mayor of Peachland said she understands if some are not happy about the non-denominational blessing at the municipality’s inaugural meeting.

“If it was to happen again and I was running again and elected again, I was going to make sure we didn’t have it there. I know it is really important to a lot of people, but there is such a diversity of religion out there…I really don’t think it should be at a council ceremony,” Peachland Mayor Cindy Fortin said.

Fortin said she doesn’t think anyone involved was aware of the Supreme Court ruling in 2018.

“There was no intention to go against a ruling,” Fortin said.

“I did express at the time that I wasn’t very comfortable with it but it had already been planned and organized…but I’m pretty sure it won’t occur in 2022."

   

Port Coquitlam

🤨     Y The City reviews all of its practices leading up to each election.

Qualicum Beach

🤨     Y The Town has a practice of working with the newly elected officials and our solicitor to finalize the details of the inaugural meeting. As a result of this approach, we do expect to see changes on an ongoing basis.

Saanich

🤨 Saanich News "Atheist group claims Christian-based prayer at inaugural Vancouver Island council meetings violates court ruling" The District of Saanich has declined a request for comment. Y The District of Saanich has not taken any action in planning the 2022 Inaugural Meeting and would only do so once a Mayor-Elect has been declared after the General Local Election of 2022. We will take your comments into consideration for planning in 2022.

Spallumcheen

🙂     Y This is to confirm that the Township will not be providing a Prayer of Invocation at our Inaugural Meetings.

Terrace

🤨     Y We will review this practice before the next inaugural meeting is organized for 2022.

Trail

🙂     Y The City of Trail's Council Procedure Bylaw does not contain any provisions that an Invocation to be included in the agenda for an Inaugural Meeting.  Past practice had included an Invocation as a form of welcome.  The City of Trail will not be including an Invocation in any future Inaugural Meetings.

Victoria

🙁 Victoria News "Atheist group claims Christian-based prayer at inaugural Vancouver Island council meetings violates court ruling"

The City of Victoria adamantly denies the use of prayer in its 2018 inaugural meeting and says it is fully in compliance with legal obligations to preserve religious neutrality.

“Although there was a First Nations Blessing delivered by a Songhees Nation Elder and an Invocation delivered by the Dean of the Christ Church Cathedral as part of the meeting, neither constituted a religious practice,” said Bill Eisenhauer, spokesperson for the city. “The review of the Invocation makes it clear that, although delivered by a religious official, it was not a prayer but a contemplative appeal to help guide council’s future deliberations. Neither discriminated against anyone or contravened Canadian law, including the Supreme Court of Canada decision in the 2015 Saguenay case.”

N -

White Rock

🤨 Surrey Now-Leader "White Rock council under fire for inaugural prayer"

City corporate administration officer Tracey Arthur responded that White Rock “is an inclusive city where people of all faiths and beliefs are welcomed.”

But she added that staff will be “taking a look” at whether a prayer would be included in the 2022 inaugural meeting.

“Including a prayer has been the tradition at White Rock City Council’s swearing-in ceremony and inaugural meeting, as it was in 2018,” she told Peace Arch News.

“That is a unique circumstance, since prayers are not included with the regular council and committee meetings.”

Y

The next Council Inaugural will be held November 2022.

At that time consideration will be given to this.

Williams Lake

🤨

    Y We are well ahead of the next election cycle. No planning has yet begun for an inaugural meeting. We are aware of and have reviewed the Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City) 2015 SCC 16 decision. It is the policy and practice of our organization to encourage diversity, tolerance and inclusion. Although it would be premature to speculate on the outcome of the planning process, whatever decisions are made with respect to the inaugural meeting will reflect those values.

 

[1] Please note that the responses copied here are direct quotes from correspondence with complimentary close and greetings removed, unless where specified.

[2] Township of Langley. (2019, November 4). “Report to Mayor and council - Township of Langley Council Procedure Bylaw 2016 No. 5199 Amendment Bylaw 2019 No. 5522.” Report No. 19-163, File 3900-25. Available at https://tol.ca.legistar.com/View.ashx?M=A&ID=6248&GUID=05492703-3903-4511-96BD-15D4DA02E352 (retrieved August 17, 2020). 

[3] City of Nanaimo responded to the BCHA following the release of our study and committed to ending prayers.

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