Vancouver among seven municipalities that included prayer in 2022 inaugural meetings, violating Supreme Court mandate

In a new report released today, the BC Humanist Association (BCHA) calls out Vancouver as one of seven municipalities for including prayers in its 2022 inaugural council meetings.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2015 that including a prayer in a council meeting violated the state's duty of neutrality and, therefore, was unconstitutional.

We Yelled at Them Until They Stopped is the BCHA's follow-up report to The Duty of Neutrality Beyond Saguenay, which looked at the 2018 inaugural council meetings. In 2018, 26 municipalities included prayers in their inaugural meetings. Last year, only seven did.

The release of the report coincides roughly with the one-year anniversary of the 2022 inaugural council meetings.

Dr Teale Phelps Bondaroff, BCHA Research Coordinator and co-author:

Municipal council chambers should be a place that is welcoming to all, regardless of their belief, or lack thereof. The Supreme Court is clear that local governments have a duty of religious neutrality, and this means that they cannot include prayer in council meetings.

Ian Bushfield, BCHA Executive Director and co-author:

As BC has become majority non-religious, we've seen the practice of opening meetings with a prayer become a thing of the past. However, we were still shocked by the number of holdouts, especially the City of Vancouver. Having five different theists deliver a collective prayer does not make the practice any less discriminatory for those not reflected on stage.

BC municipalities with prayers in their 2022 inaugural meetings

Municipality Affiliation of Prayer Religion Gender
Belcarra Inlet United Church Christian F
Colwood Royal Bay Secondary School Choir Christian N/A
Delta South Delta Baptist Church Christian M
Parksville Parksville Fellowship Baptist Church Christian M
Tumbler Ridge Chetwynd Christian Ministries Christian M
Vancouver Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver Christian M
Canadian Memorial United Church Christian F
Temple Shalom Jewish M
Khalsa Diwan Society Sikh M
BC Muslim Association Muslim M
West Kelowna Fire Chaplain Christian M

Colwood's inaugural council meeting prayer had a public school choir sing the Catholic liturgy, "Deo gratias." Vancouver's inaugural ceremony featured five religious representatives delivering a collective prayer.

A freedom of information request revealed, "Mayor-elect Ken Sim has asked that we invite five religious leaders to bring greetings at the ceremony." Vancouver last included a prayer at its inaugural meeting in 2005.

As Justice Gascon wrote in the Saguenay decision:

Even if it were accepted that the prayer at issue is prima facie a non-denominational practice, it is nonetheless a religious practice...Even if a religious practice engaged in by the state is “inclusive”, it may nevertheless exclude non-believers.

After releasing its previous report, the BCHA lobbied those municipalities identified as including a prayer. Of those targeted by the secularists, only Parksville continued to include a prayer in 2022. Belcarra, Delta and West Kelowna also continued to include prayers but were previously overlooked. The remaining communities, Colwood, Tumbler Ridge and Vancouver, had ceased including prayers in their inaugural meetings.

The authors conclude that the BCHA's efforts between the two elections significantly impacted the end of prayers in communities across the province.

Phelps Bondaroff:

I am proud that the advocacy of the BC Humanist Association is making a positive impact and hope that those municipalities that continued to include unconstitutional prayer in the 2022 inaugural meetings will discontinue this practice in the future.

The BCHA intends to follow up with the remaining seven municipalities identified to ask them again to follow the law. We will also write again to every council prior to the 2026 inaugural meetings to remind them of their obligations.

The report also found that the number of municipalities including Indigenous content in their inaugural ceremonies rose from 38.8% in 2018 to 71.6% in 2022. This content included greetings from local elders, traditional welcomes and territorial acknowledgements.

Read the report

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