Canadian atheists, your help is needed in an important Supreme Court battle

There is a fairly important case coming before the Supreme Court soon, revolving around prayer in public meetings. And a Québec secularist group desperately needs your help to fight it.

Back in 2006, Alain Simoneau, a resident of Saguenay at the time, filed a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal over the prayers that started every municipal city council meeting. He actually won the case in 2011. But in 2013, the Court of Appeals overturned the ruling, based partly on the argument that since 2008, the very sectarian (read, Catholic) prayer was replaced with a more non-denominational prayer. More on that it a moment, but first, let’s look at the opposing side.

The Mayor of Saguenay was, and still is, Jean Tremblay, and if that name sounds familiar to you… well, he’s got a history of being a jerk to nonbelievers (and to minorities in general, natch; you’ll find plenty more stuff linked to at McGuire’s blog). Tremblay is a hard-core Catholic thug who even wrote a book about how important it is to believe in God (English title: Believing changes everything: Why faith transforms life). He just loves to play the nasty identity politics game so popular in Québec. In one press conference he said, The first thing that Jacques Cartier did when he arrived in Québec was to set up a cross. Early in the Values Charter flap, before the exemptions for Catholic symbols was included, Algerian-born PQ member Djemila Benhabib – a noted secular activist, and outspoken anti-Muslim – pushed for removing the crucifix from the national assembly… and Tremblay’s response was:

It’s not the [secular] charter in and out of itself [that peeves him off]. It’s having someone whose name I can’t even pronounce come from Algeria, who doesn’t understand our culture at all, but she’s going to make the rules.

While the PQ and Pauline Marois at first condemned Tremblay’s comments (by saying the Benhabib’s integration was exemplary – which isn’t really much of an improvement), they ultimately caved into the right-wing pressure and made the Charter more appealing to people like Tremblay.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that Tremblay is taking this fight as far as it can go. And it shouldn’t be surprising that he’s using the issue as a wedge to divide Québec by saying that it’s a battle between what he consider to be Québec’s values – which appear by his definition to be bigotry, xenophobia, intolerance, and Catholic privilege – and Canada’s.

Oh, and I mentioned that Tremblay won his Court of Appeals case because he started using a “non-denominational” prayer. Let’s see what that “non-denominational” prayer looks like:

Before the opening of each public meeting, Saguenay Mayor Jean Tremblay​ crosses himself “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” and recites a prayer.

The 20-second prayer (said in French) ends with another sign of the cross and an “Amen.”

The prayer:

“O God, all powerful and eternal, from whom comes all power and wisdom, we are assembled in your presence to ensure the well-being and prosperity of our city.

Grant us, we beseech thee, the light and energy necessary so that our deliberations contribute to promote the honour and glory of your name and the spiritual and material happiness of our city.”

Presumably those are the non-denomination Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Maybe something is getting lost in translation.

Anyway, so the case is going to the Supreme Court of Canada, and here’s where things get grim. If you’ve been following American freethinker news, you’ve surely heard about the terrible loss in their Supreme Court of a similar case. Granted, our Supreme Court isn’t as fucked up as theirs, but that should be a worrying wake-up call to Canadian secularists.

To make matters worse, this is going to be an expensive battle, and Tremblay has never had much trouble raking in the dough. Back in 2011, he had raised $181,000 while the Québec Secular Movement (Mouvement laïque québécois (MLQ)) had only managed to raise $25,000. That’s a jarring difference.

So, Canadian atheists, you’re needed now. The MLQ is asking for donations to help with the legal battle. (Their site is in French, so if you need an English translation, here is some help form Google Translate.) A Supreme Court case is extremely expensive, and the more they can spend, the more – and better – the legal advice they can get, which could make the difference.

Remember, this is the Supreme Court of Canada, so their ruling will not only affect Québec, it will affect all of us. Please help this very important cause.

Update 16-Aug-2014

Sean McGuire (aka Godless Poutine) at My Secret Atheist Blog notes that you can also donate via the Canadian Secular Alliance.

9 thoughts on “Canadian atheists, your help is needed in an important Supreme Court battle

  1. (If you wouldn’t call Tremblay a cunt, and I generously assume you wouldn’t, you shouldn’t call him a dick. Sexism harms everyone.)

    Consider the corruption of the Canadian courts (e.g. the Ontario Court of Appeals’ astonishing declaration that the Oath to the Queen “…I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II” is not, in fact, an oath to a queen).

    I have zero confidence that these courts can acknowledge that God is the Christian god (or at the outside, Jewish) and that gods are necessarily the central symbols of religion.

    Before I contribute, I want to know how we’re going to convince the court that words (like God and Holy Spirit, as opposed to Allah and Heavenly Father) actually mean what they say.

    • (If you wouldn’t call Tremblay a cunt, and I generously assume you wouldn’t, you shouldn’t call him a dick. Sexism harms everyone.

      (Fixed.)

      Consider the corruption of the Canadian courts (e.g. the Ontario Court of Appeals’ astonishing declaration that the Oath to the Queen “…I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II” is not, in fact, an oath to a queen).

      That’s a misrepresentation of what really happened. As far as I understand it, their ruling is that any oath you’re compelled to say can’t be taken seriously as an oath, and weighing the balance between wanting new citizens to understand and and acknowledge Canada’s governmental structure versus being forced to say something you don’t agree to (but can’t be held to), the Court figured the former was more important.

      Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s the wrong decision, but in that case the Court’s hands were more or less tied by the fact that the Monarchy is an undeniable and unavoidable fact – whether you like it or not (and I really don’t), it is a plain fact for all Canadians that we are subjects of a Queen. We can argue it, we can seethe at it, we can work to change it… but the bottom line is that we *have* to accept it, for the interim at least, and that’s what the ruling concluded: doesn’t matter that you vigorously object to the Monarchy, you have to accept that it exists and you’re subject to it.

      This case is completely different. There is no legal compulsion to take part in the prayer (if there were, we’d have an even more serious issue), so the argument can’t go “going along with the prayer means nothing since you were forced to do it”. Being present at the meeting – which you have a legal right to be – and then being forced to go along with a prayer to take part in it *would* be the government forcing a particular religion on you.

      I have zero confidence that these courts can acknowledge that God is the Christian god (or at the outside, Jewish) and that gods are necessarily the central symbols of religion.

      There are three things that give me hope.

      The first is that the Americans have made such a mucking fess of it, the Court might be loathe to follow them down that road.

      The second is that Tremblay’s “non-denominational” prayer is such a transparent “fuck you” to the system that the Court might not need much convincing at all that “non-denomination” prayers are a joke, or that allowing rotating groups to offer the prayers would just result in the majority religion doing all the prayers all the time (again, we can look south to see that that’s what happens).

      The third is that the wording in Canadian law is very, very strong about the requirements for freedom of religion and conscience, equality under the law, and accommodation of different beliefs (or non-beliefs) – *much* stronger than what they have down south. Section 15 of the Charter especially will be relevant here, and it *seems* to me – though I’m not an expert by any means – to be a slam dunk. The test for a violation of s15 is whether a) there is differential treatment, b) whether that differential treatment is on a protected ground, and c) whether that differential treatment causes prejudice or stereotyping. Well, a) is obviously true, b) is a given (there is no doubt that religious belief is a protected ground), and c) seems patently obvious, too. By our laws, religious beliefs and non-religious beliefs (and non-religious beliefs have been *explicitly* mentioned as counting) *must* be accommodated unless there is a damn good reason not to. You are not accommodating nonbelievers when you hold a prayer – no matter how “non-denominational” – and there is no good reason why you have to have that prayer and can’t just take it off the agenda… therefore the only way to satisfy the law is to not have official prayer during public meetings.

      Put it all together, and we have a much better chance at getting it right than the Americans did. But there are still no guarantees – which is why the donations are so badly needed.

      Before I contribute, I want to know how we’re going to convince the court that words (like God and Holy Spirit, as opposed to Allah and Heavenly Father) actually mean what they say.

      No one will be able to reasonably convince you out of a straw man you’ve irrationally convinced yourself into. Your fears are based on a misunderstanding of what actually happened in that pledge of allegiance case. It was a bad decision, sure, but the *reasons* for it are sound under Canadian law… which is what the Court is bound to, good or bad.

      In that case, they couldn’t trivially rule the oath of allegiance unconstitutional because that would be absurd on the face of it – the Queen is at the *heart* of our constitution… it would be as ridiculous as saying that government offices shouldn’t require people to declare their nationality as “Canadian” when applying for services because some people object to it (for example, aboriginals who only recognize the sovereignty of their band). We all know that the Monarchy is bullshit – archaic, offensive, and long-past its due-date for abolishing… but it exists, and it is foundational in Canadian law, so the Court had to come up with a solution that acknowledged that. Given those constraints, what they came up with wasn’t *that* bad, though of course there is still room for reasonable disagreement (and I disagree with it).

  2. Thanks for posting about this and linking to my blog posts. I must admit that I find Tremblay to be rather entertaining… but this is still dangerous.

    Up here in Canada (yes, Quebec is still technically Canada) we have our share of religious folks who wax on and on about how Canada is a Christian country and about how they deserve privilege for this.

    Just imagine how much more obnoxious and bold these people will be when they have a Supreme Court precedent backing them up.

    • Thanks for posting about this and linking to my blog posts.

      You’re my go-to blog for anything relating to secularism, atheism, or humanism in Québec. (And Uganda, interestingly.) ^_^; I checked your post on it and noticed that the CSA had a donation page, too, so I also linked that.

      Up here in Canada (yes, Quebec is still technically Canada) we have our share of religious folks who wax on and on about how Canada is a Christian country and about how they deserve privilege for this.

      Just imagine how much more obnoxious and bold these people will be when they have a Supreme Court precedent backing them up.

      Yes, we are in a weird place legally wrt religion. On the one hand we have some of the most powerful, extensive, and progressive laws in the world when it comes to dealing with a country that has multiple intersecting beliefs… on the other our “Christian heritage” is damn near undeniable – especially in Québec – and it’s even been regrettably enshrined in some of of those same documents that outline that laws I just referred to. If it weren’t for that, I’d have no concern about winning this case. But the existence of a cultural heritage of religion *might* be taken more seriously than it should.

      I still hold out hope, though, because the Court *has* shrugged off the tradition/heritage argument in the past (such as when it ruled that Sunday closing laws were illegal).

  3. Hi, I think you’ve quoted the old prayer as the non-denominational prayer. That prayer was stopped in 2006, the new one apparently read since 2008:

    “Almighty God, we thank You for the many favours that You have granted Saguenay and its citizens, including freedom, opportunities for development and peace. Guide us in our deliberations as members of the municipal council and help us to be well aware of our duties and responsibilities. Grant us the wisdom, knowledge and understanding that will enable us to preserve the advantages that our city enjoys, so that everyone can benefit from them and we can make wise decisions.”

    • You may be correct. The problem is I’m not sure because I’ve got conflicting information. The CBC story I linked to gives the version I quoted, while the version you quoted is mentioned in other sources I encountered – for example: http://www.thecourt.ca/2014/01/31/appeal-watch-religiosity-in-government-to-be-deliberated-by-scc-in-mlq-v-city-of-saguenay/ . I figured the CBC was probably a safer source than a blog… which, admittedly, given the level of journalistic integrity the CBC regularly shows in matters of secularism, might have been stupid.

      Either way, I decided not to take issue with the wording I was unsure of, and instead focus on the “bonus extras” that are attested to in pretty much all sources. As you can see both in the CBC version and the version mentioned by that blog, Tremblay crosses himself and says “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”, so that’s what I called out. (Whether he says “amen” or not i’m not sure of – CBC says yes, other sources say no – so I didn’t mention it… the blog also mentions that there’s a bunch of Catholic imagery around when the prayer says, but CBC didn’t, so I didn’t mention it either.)

      • Safest to go the the court decisions themselves. Annoying that CBC quoted to old prayer! I saw that too. Quite an interesting read. It seems that in 2008, Saguenay reformatted the prayer to be exactly like the one in Peterborough that survived the court challenge, which is fair enough. Eagerly anticipating what the Supremes will do, can’t say I am optimistic.

        But, decisions like the Niagara challenge to the Gideon’s is promising.

  4. Having a read of the court of appeal decision and my ire is certainly up. This case like others enforce the view that it is not discriminatory for government to take the view that Canadians are essentially theist and monotheist. This quote was particularly troubling:

    “I accept the appellant’s proposition to the affect that although some may be offended by this introduction in the Canadian Charter, [recognizing the supremacy of God] it remains a principle that, from a constitutional point of view, is unassailable.”

    Going to think more about it and blog about it. I think it is good news that the Supremes are hearing the appeal.
    http://www.canlii.org/en/qc/qcca/doc/2013/2013qcca936/2013qcca936.html

  5. Pingback: On Canadian Atheist: Canadian atheists, your help is needed in an important Supreme Court battle | Indi in the Wired

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