Victoria councillor starts debate on religious holiday decorations

The BC Humanist Association is supportive of any municipality reviewing whether public funds are being spent in a secular and inclusive manner.

During a line-by-line debate over the City of Victoria's annual budget, Council approved a motion by Councillor Ben Isitt to have staff review the $64,000 the city spends on seasonal decorations.

The motion has drawn significant coverage, following a front-page story in the Victoria Times Colonist. It's since been picked up by most local news outlets and several national and international publications.

Councillor Isitt told the Times Colonist:

I think there are still many elements of Christian symbolism that are paid for with taxpayer dollars and, for me, that doesn’t reflect a clear division between church and state.

Following the coverage and controversy, Councillor Isitt released an additional statement on Twitter.

The BC Humanist Association (BCHA) supports a secular society that affirms the right of every individual to practice any religion or none, free from coercion by the government, private institutions or their community; and that the state has a duty of religious neutrality, meaning it must neither endorse nor prohibit any belief or non-belief.

While the BCHA has not actively requested municipalities reduce spending on holiday decorations, it is supportive of efforts to ensure governments respect their constitutional duty of religious neutrality, as set out by the Supreme Court of Canada.

Ian Bushfield, Executive Director, BCHA:

Despite the uproar on Twitter, Councillor Ben Isitt should be commended for his willingness to question the sacred cow of the City of Victoria’s holiday decorations budget.

While not on the top of our agenda for a more secular British Columbia, we nevertheless support efforts to review government spending to ensure it is inclusive and secular. This is not just a reasonable approach; it arguably protects the City from future Charter challenges.

In its 2015 Saguenay decision, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that governments in Canada have a duty of religious neutrality, “which means that it must neither favour nor hinder any particular belief, and the same holds true for non-belief.” In that case, the practice of starting council meetings with a prayer was deemed to violate this duty.

Bushfield further told CTV News Vancouver Island:

He’s not saying that we need to tear everything down, or war on Christmas or anything. He just wants some reasonable accounting, and to make sure that the decorations that the city puts up and supports reflect the cultural and diverse viewpoints of residents of Victoria.

If you're concerned about funds being spent by your community on religious decorations, sign up to follow our work on secularism below.

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