SCC Gives Municipalities (& Other Government Authorities) 3 Reasons Not to Say A Little Prayer in Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City)
April 15, 2015
By James Mosher, at McInnes Cooper
On April 15, 2015 the Supreme Court of Canada decided the City of Saguenay’s recitation of a religious – though non-denominational – prayer before public Council meetings is discriminatory and breaches its duty of neutrality. Technically, this decision doesn’t say that every religious prayer or practice will breach a state authority’s duty of neutrality. A person who complains about a practice has to satisfy the legal test, so each case will be based on the particular evidence. But given this case involved a non-denominational religious prayer, it’s hard to imagine a religious practice that wouldn’t breach the duty of neutrality.
A municipal council or other government authority that includes any religious practice or symbol in a proceeding should review it now. The decision is relevant across Canada even though it’s based on the Quebec Charter: every Canadian Province and Territory has human rights legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion, and every law in Canada must comply with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ protection of freedom of religion.
The City of Saguenay’s council meetings began with the mayor reciting a prayer and a blessing in a microphone while crossing himself; other councillors and city officials did the same. There were religious symbols in Council chambers. Mr. Simoneau, an atheist who regularly attends the meetings, objected to the practice and symbols. The City subsequently adopted a by-law regulating the practice, but making the wording non-denominational and adding a short delay between it and the official start of Council proceedings. Mr. Simoneau sued the City, claiming the practice and the by-law was discriminatory because it interfered with his freedom of conscience and religion under the Quebec Charter and breached the City’s duty of neutrality. The SCC agreed. Its decision gives a municipal council or other government authority that includes any religious practice or symbol in a proceeding three reasons to review it now:
- Breach of State’s Duty of Neutrality. A state authority has a duty to be neutral, so it can’t use its powers to promote the participation of certain believers – or non-believers – in public life to the detriment of others. A state will breach the duty in the context of a complaint of religious discrimination if the complainant proves: the authority is professing, adopting or favouring one belief to the exclusion of all others; and the exclusion interfered with the complainant’s freedom of conscience and religion – but the complainant’s belief must be sincere and the interference more than trivial and substantial.
The City admitted the prayer is a religious practice. It excluded sincere atheists, which Mr. Simoneau proved he is. The price for non-believers to participate in meetings was significant: “isolation, exclusion and stigmatization”. The City’s practice discriminated against Mr. Simoneau and breached its duty of neutrality.
- By-Law Can’t Save It. When someone challenges a law, and its purpose is to regulate a challenged practice, the analysis of the law includes the practice: the City couldn’t insulate the practice by “legislating” it with the by-law. And its “accommodation” of Mr. Simoneau by including in the by-law time for people who didn’t want to hear the prayer time to enter the room didn’t work either; it only made heightened the exclusion of non-believers.
- There’s a Cost. The SCC ordered the City to pay Mr. Simoneau $15,000 to compensate him – and an additional $15,000 to punish the City because of the intentional nature of the interference.
Read the SCC’s decision in Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City), 2015 SCC 16.
Please contact your McInnes Cooper lawyer or any member of our McInnes Cooper Municipal Law Team or our Public Law Team to discuss this topic or any other legal issue.
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