Vancouver concedes 2022 prayers breached duty of neutrality

The City of Vancouver has said that prayers at its most recent inauguration ceremony were "a breach of the duty of religious neutrality." A lawyer for the City made the concession in response to the threat of legal action from the BC Humanist Association (BCHA).

In light of the City's acknowledgement, the BCHA has dropped its planned lawsuit and will closely follow the plans for the next inaugural ceremony.

Ian Bushfield, Executive Director:

We're feeling vindicated today that the City of Vancouver recognized the issue we and others had with the prayers delivered at its inaugural meeting. In the words of the Supreme Court of Canada, a neutral public space protects every person's freedom and dignity.

We will continue to work to ensure all our public institutions are secular and inclusive.

In 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that prayers at municipal council meetings were unconstitutional as they breached the state's duty of religious neutrality.

Last year, the BCHA identified Vancouver as one of seven municipalities in BC that included religious content in their 2022 inaugural council meetings in We Yelled at Them Until They Stopped. After publishing the report, the BCHA sought commitments from each of these municipalities that future meetings would be secular.

Dr Teale Phelps Bondaroff, Research Coordinator:

I am pleased to see that Vancouver has recognized that the inclusion of prayer in its 2022 inaugural meeting constituted a violation of its duty of religious neutrality. It is important that everyone feels welcome at municipal council meetings. When a municipality opens a meeting with prayer, it elevates some religions over others and sends the message that religion is more important than non-religion.

The newly elected Mayor and Councillors were sworn in on November 7, 2022. The ceremony featured greetings delivered by representatives from five religious groups: Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver, Canadian Memorial United Church, Temple Shalom, Khalsa Diwan Society and BC Muslim Association. Together they delivered a collective prayer. Emails obtained by the BCHA through an FOI request showed that then mayor-elect Ken Sim requested the representatives be invited.

The City wrote to the BCHA's counsel on May 15 stating, "the City of Vancouver will comply with its constitutional obligations as set out in Saguenay and subsequent decisions." After seeking further clarification, the City wrote on Friday:

The City acknowledges that hosting prayers at the City of Vancouver's November 7, 2022 inauguration ceremony was a breach of the duty of religious neutrality as set out in Mouvement laique Québecois v Saguenay 2015 SCC 16.

Read the May 15, 2024 letter from the City of Vancouver

Read the May 31, 2024 letter from the City of Vancouver

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