Canadian court rules out prayers at council meetings

Canadian cities must end their tradition of saying prayers during council meetings, according to Canada’s supreme court.

The ruling ends an eight-year legal battle that began when atheist Alain Simoneau and the Quebec Lay Movement lodged a complaint against Jean Tremblay, mayor of the Quebec city of Saguenay, claiming that the tradition of praying at the start of council meetings violated his freedom of conscience and religion. 

In 2011, Quebec's human rights tribunal ordered an end to prayers, demanding the removal of a crucifix in the city council chamber and awarding damages to Mr Simoneau, but Mayor Tremblay raised money through the city’s website to appeal against the decision, claiming he was fighting a battle for Quebec’s Catholic heritage. 

The Quebec Court of Appeal overturned the tribunal's decision in 2013, ruling that Saguenay imposed no religious views on its citizens, and rejecting the view that the recitation of a prayer violated the city’s religious neutrality. If the recitation interfered with Mr Simoneau’s values, the appeal court ruled, the interference was trivial.

The Supreme Court of Canada has, however, overturned this decision, unanimously ruling that “the state must not interfere in religion and beliefs”, and that “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.”

The decision applies to all cities and towns throughout Canada. 

Mayor Tremblay said he was “disappointed” by the ruling, as did Bishop Andre Rivest of Chicoutimi, the diocese in which Saguenay is located, who had supported the mayor.