Rory Leishman

Rory Leishman

The issue was brought before the Court by Alain Simoneau, a professed atheist in Saguenay, a municipality in the Lac-St.-Jean (Maria Chapdelaine) region of northern Quebec. In 2006, Simoneau filed a complaint against the municipality with the Quebec Commission des droits de la personne on the ground that the longstanding practice of reciting a Christian prayer at the opening of meetings of the Saguenay city council violated his constitutional rights as an atheist to freedom of conscience and religion.

Saguenay city councillors were not intimidated. They unanimously adopted a bylaw reaffirming their desire to continue the tradition of opening their meetings with a prayer on the basis of “their rights to freedom of expression, conscience and religion.” To accommodate anyone who might wish to remain absent from the council chamber while the prayer was being recited, the councillors also resolved to suspend the beginning of the business portion of their meetings until two minutes after the prayer.  

Upon review, the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal found in favour of Simoneau. Then this ruling was reversed by the Quebec Court of Appeal. Finally, upon further appeal, Simoneau and the Mouvement laique quebecois, a non-profit organization which advocates the complete secularization of the state in Quebec, have won a momentous victory. In an unanimous ruling on April 15, the Supreme Court of Canada held that the recitation of prayer by the Saguenay municipal council violates Simoneau’s constitutional rights as a sincere atheist to freedom of conscience and religion in section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

On this basis, Canada’s top court ordered the Saguenay city council “to cease the recitation of the prayer in the chambers where the municipal council meets,” to defray Simoneau’s court costs, and to pay him $15,000 in compensatory damages and $15,000 in punitive damages plus interest for exposing him to the offense of public prayer by the municipal council.

What about the rights to freedom of conscience and religion for the Christians on the Saguenay municipal council? According to the Supreme Court of Canada, they have no constitutional right to pray in their capacities as municipal councillors, because the state has a “duty of neutrality” in matters of religion. Furthermore, the Court held that the council’s decision to delay council meetings for two minutes after the recitation of the prayer to accommodate people like Simoneau who are offended by Christian prayer in the council chamber had the effect of “exacerbating the discrimination.”

Last year, a similar case came before the United States Supreme Court. In this instance, the practice in dispute was the opening of council meetings in the town of Greece, N.Y., with a Christian prayer. Two complainants argued that the recitation of such prayers before a council meeting violates the “Establishment Clause” in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

In a five-to-four ruling, the United States Supreme Court rejected this argument. The reasons of Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia, are instructive. They argued that “this Court has always purported to base its Establishment Clause decisions on the original meaning of that provision,” so it is, or should be, evident that the Establishment Clause and the guarantee of the free exercise of religion in the First Amendment do not prohibit the recitation of Christian prayers before legislative assemblies because it was  commonplace for state officials to recite such prayers as part of their official duties when the United States Bill of Rights was adopted. In the words of Alito and Scalia: “It is virtually inconceivable that the First Congress, having appointed chaplains whose responsibilities prominently included the delivery of prayers at the beginning of each daily session, thought that this practice was inconsistent with the Establishment Clause.”

As in Saguenay, so in Greece, the complainants purported that municipal prayers “gave them offense and made them feel excluded and disrespected.” The majority of the United States Supreme Court rejected this argument out of hand. They stated “offense… does not equate to coercion” since “adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable; and an Establishment Clause violation is not made out any time a person experiences a sense of affront from the expression of contrary religious views in a legislative forum.”

Essentially, the same reasoning ought to apply in Canada. Today, as always, the speaker of the House of Commons opens each sitting with a prayer similar to the one banned by the Supreme Court of Canada in Saguenay. Therefore, it is virtually inconceivable that the House of Commons understood when the Charter was adopted in 1982 that the guarantee of freedom of conscience and religion in section 2 would entail a complete ban on public prayers by public officials at the beginning of a legislative sitting.

How, then, has the Supreme Court of Canada arrived at the opposite conclusion? Justice Clement Gascon explains in his ruling for the Court: “The state’s duty of religious neutrality results from an evolving interpretation of freedom of conscience and religion. The evolution of Canadian society has given rise to a concept of this neutrality according to which the state must not interfere in religion and beliefs. The state must instead remain neutral in this regard, which means that it must neither favour nor hinder any particular belief, and the same holds true for nonbelief.”

Note that the Court’s entire ruling is based on what it calls the “evolving interpretation of freedom of conscience and religion.” Where did this notion come from? Has the Parliament of Canada enacted such an “evolving interpretation of conscience and religion” into law? No. Has any of the provincial legislatures entrenched in law this new, restrictive understanding of freedom of religion and freedom of expression? Again, no.

The idea that an evolving interpretation of freedom of conscience and religion has emerged in Canada that constitutionally forbids state officials from reciting a public prayer is entirely an invention of the Supreme Court of Canada. Unlike the Supreme Court of the United States, Canada’s top Court has no regard for the original understanding of the law or the Constitution. It has no compunction about overturning even its own precedents.

In short, the Supreme Court of Canada has become a law unto itself, dictating to servile Canadians key public policies on everything from abortion to prostitution and euthanasia. And now, it has abolished the traditional recitation of Christian prayers by elected representatives of the people seeking divine guidance before the beginning of their deliberations.

Nonetheless, some thoughtful Christians applaud the Supreme Court’s Saguenay ruling. Now that the Christian church has lost almost all influence over public policy in Canada, these Christians think they will be safer in a state that at least professes neutrality between religion and non-religion.

That hope is an illusion. Atheists, agnostics and secularists have far better reason to hail the Saguenay ruling as a great victory. As the historic rights and freedoms of Christians are progressively overturned by our judicial legislators, the next victims are apt to be conscientious physicians who refuse to collaborate in abortion, or faithful lawyers who still dare to affirm that marriage is the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman.

In the face of this escalating persecution of the Church in Canada, should faithful Christians seek safety by conforming in public, cowering in silence and retreating within their own communities? Surely not.

Rather the faithful should pray now, as always, for the kind of courage, grace and determination exhibited by the late, great Cardinal George of Chicago, who famously prophesied: “I will die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die as a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the Church has done so often in human history.”