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April 15, 2015
Supreme Court Rules Opening Prayers Unconstitutional
The Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) has ruled in the case of Mouvement laïque québécois (Mlq)and Alain Simoneau v. Saguenay (City) that opening public meetings with a prayer is unconstitutional because it breaches the separation of church and state that has become the accepted norm in Canadian society and because it denies the right of freedom from religion to “sincere atheists” to participate fully in the democratic process.
Alain Simoneau, an atheist citizen of Saguenay, PQ objected to the Saguenay City Council, led by its mayor, opening council meetings with a prayer. To whit, the councillors would cross themselves, repeat the prayer and cross themselves again at the opening of every council meeting. In addition the Saguenay City Hall and council chambers had religious icons in several places.
M. Simoneau objected in writing to the mayor and councillors to both the opening prayers and to the presence of the religious statues. The mayor and council refused his request stating that both the prayer and the statues were an integral part of Québec cultural heritage.
Joined and supported by the Mlq, M. Simoneau took his complaint to the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse and that commission ruled in his favour. The City appealed to the Québec Superior Court of Appeal which ruled in Saguenay’s favour agreeing with the mayor that the practice and the icons were a part of Québec’s cultural heritage.
Mlq and M. Simoneau appealed to the SCC and this resulted in the ruling cited above. The SCC decided to limit its rconsideration to the prayers.
In its unanimous ruling the SCC clarified a number of important concepts around this case that can be applied to other cases both now and in the future. First and foremost, it ruled that the state, as represented by practices in public meetings, must “remain neutral in this regard [i.e. religious belief – non-belief] which means that it neither favour nor hinder any particular belief, and the same holds true for non-belief.”(Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City), 2015)
The Court went further to state that “[t]he pursuit of the ideal of a free and democratic society requires the state to encourage everyone to participate freely in public life regardless of their beliefs. A neutral public space free from coercion, pressure and judgment on the part of public authorities in matters of spirituality is intended to protect every person’s freedom and dignity, and it helps preserve and promote the multicultural nature of Canadian society. The state’s duty to protect every person’s freedom of conscience and religion means that it may not use its powers in such a way as to promote the participation of certain believers or non-believers in public life to the detriment of others. If the state adheres to a form of religious expression under the guise of cultural or historical reality or heritage, it breaches its duty of neutrality.” (Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City), 2015)
In short, not only does the state have the duty to remain neutral in its practices regarding religious belief or non-belief, but it has a duty to avoid promoting the participation of religious people in the democratic process to the detriment of non-believer–or vice versa.
The Court also pointed out in that same paragraph that claims to cultural or historical heritage do not relieve the state from the duty to be neutral.
Another paragraph in the ruling also deserves our attention, because it makes clear the standard that non-believers must reach for complaints of this nature to be considered seriously by human rights tribunals and courts.
“To conclude that an infringement has occurred, the Tribunal must be satisfied that the complainant’s belief is sincere, and must find that the complainant’s ability to act in accordance with his or her beliefs has been interfered with in a manner that is more than trivial or insubstantial.” (Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City), 2015)
In other words, before we all “take to the streets,” let’s be sure that our complaints have substance and really do interfere with our rights in a way that is more than trivial or insubstantial.
That said, there is a case before the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal that, except for the religious icons, is the same as the case just decided. That Peterborough case involves one of our SCS subscribers and, by mutual agreement, has been awaiting this SCC decision. Hopefully it will be resolved with less inconvenience for the parties than the eight-year path Mlq & AS V. Saguenay case has caused.
SCS will also be looking into other situations, such as the Ontario Legislative Assembly, that still force opening prayers on non-believers.
All references can be found at: http://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/15288/index.do
Election Year 2015 = Atheist Awareness Year 2015
Let's Make Candidates Aware of Atheist Concerns
1. Get involved in a local riding association – pick a party – pick a job, let them know you’re atheist,
2. Let every candidate know that there are atheists in your riding, (anywhere from 5,000 – 24,000 per riding, based on there being approximately 100,000 people per riding with anywhere from 5 to 24% atheism rate in the population),
Action a) Write an email to all candidates based on the letter below (You can mail it too.),
Action b) Tweet all the candidates with a challenge to consider atheists,
3. Get involved – volunteer with the party of your choice when the election is called,
4. Go to an all candidates meeting, sit close to the microphone and get up as soon as the speeches are over to ask about one issue in the letter,
A letter for all candidates in your riding:
Dear [Insert Candidate’s Name]:
Thank you for stepping forward to take on the responsibilities of seeking public office.
I am one of the 24 Canadians out of 100 who are atheist.
As you may know, the UN and the International Humanist Ethics Union (IHEU) have identified Canada as a nation that systemically discriminates against Atheists (www.freethoughtreport.com). The report does that based on only part of the systemic discrimination in Canada.
The Atheist community is particularly concerned about favouritism toward religions in the Income Tax Act, the National Anthems Act, and the automatic inclusion of religious rites in many Canadian institutions and national events.
We are also very concerned about the Anti-blasphemy clause in the Criminal Code of Canada–Clause 296. This clause gives religions privileged status that potentially prevents reasonable criticismof their actions.
The same IHEU report identified 34 countries that actively persecute, and even execute, Atheists because of their non-belief.
We are very concerned about the lack of interest shown by the Office of Religious Freedom and by Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Baird in this discrimination against Atheists.
Please outline your party’s policy regarding these issues and how you plan to work within your party’s caucus to address these concerns.
Best wishes in your campaign.
SCS Video Links
Doug Thomas on Medically Assisted Suicide - the Dignitas model MAS Video
Doug Thomas addresses topic "God: Fact or Fiction" with a simple explanation of empirical evidence and of God as a metaphor.
Have You Been Discriminated Against?
So would Openly Secular
18 December, 2013 - Two articles analyse the IHEU Freedom of Thought Report
1. "17 % o World's Nations Hate Atheists" – Doug Thomas' analysis of IHEU report – Huffington Post, December 13, 2013
2. "[Atheists face] Discrimination or Persecution in Most Countries"– National Secular Society (UK)
10 December, 2013 – IHEU Freethought Report
The International Humanist and Ethical Union has published its Freethought report for 2013. Find out where atheists are in greatest danger around the world (13 countries execute people for being atheist). Download the report and make a donation to IHEU at: Freethought Report
6 October, 2013
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