Major Victory for Secularism in Canada!

As a signatory to Atheist Freethinkers’ “Declaration of Secular Associations in Quebec and Canada Concerning the 15 April 2015 Decision of the Supreme Court of Canada,” signed and supported by like-minded Canadian secular associations, I am pleased to announce the “Declaration” is now online on the Atheist Freethinkers (AFT) and the International Association of Free Thought (IAFT) websites:

Major Victory for Secularism in Canada!
The Supreme Court of Canada Ends Prayer at Municipal Meetings

The associations signatory to this declaration enthusiastically welcome the unanimous and categorical decision of the Supreme Court of Canada, rendered 15 April 2015, prohibiting prayers at Saguenay city council meetings, thus ruling completely in favour of the plaintiff Alain Simoneau supported by the Mouvement laïque québécois (MLQ, Quebec Secular Mouvement). Recall that Mr. Simoneau and the MLQ were victorious before the Human Rights Tribunal in 2011, but that decision was reversed by the Quebec Court of Appeal which ruled in 2013 in favour of Mayor Jean Tremblay who wished to maintain the prayer at the beginning of each council meeting. The 15 April 2015 decision by the Supreme Court thus invalidates that of the Court of Appeal and re-establishes the plaintiff’s victory. It also re-establishes the obligation for Mayor Tremblay to pay compensatory and punitive damages to the plaintiff.

This is a major victory for secularism. We congratulate the MLQ, Mr. Simoneau and all those organizations and individuals who supported them for this important and precedent-setting victory. We especially wish to underline the contribution of lawyer Luc Alarie who defended the cause before all three courts.

In the words of the Supreme Court,

The prayer recited by the municipal council in breach of the state’s duty of neutrality resulted in a distinction, exclusion and preference based on religion — that is, based on [Alain Simoneau]’s sincere atheism — which, in combination with the circumstances in which the prayer was recited, turned the meetings into a preferential space for people with theistic beliefs. The latter could participate in municipal democracy in an environment favourable to the expression of their beliefs. Although non-believers could also participate, the price for doing so was isolation, exclusion and stigmatization. This impaired [Alain Simoneau]’s right to exercise his freedom of conscience and religion.

In its ruling the Supreme Court declares that the prayer at the beginning of Saguenay city council meetings constitutes “a religious practice. Even if it is said to be inclusive, it may nevertheless exclude non-believers.” It also declares that the recognition of “the supremacy of God” in the preamble to the 1982 Canadian constitution “cannot lead to an interpretation of freedom of conscience and religion that authorizes the state to consciously profess a theistic faith.” The ruling established beyond all doubt that the religious neutrality of the state is compulsory and its concept of neutrality puts belief and non-belief on equal footing.

This ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada represents a victory for the rights of atheists and other non-believers, of course, for it recognizes clearly the notion that freedom of belief must include freedom of non-belief. But it is also a victory for the freedom of conscience of everyone, including believers, because it puts an end to the imposition of a religious ceremony in a public institution, a ceremony which is both useless and inappropriate in such a context, an imposition which cannot be justified, regardless of the religion or lack thereof of each person in attendance.

Already the effects of this important court decision are beginning to be felt. Several cities both in Quebec and outside have already announced that they are re-evaluating their practice of prayers at council meetings. The Supreme Court decision will have consequences across Canada. One can only rejoice! Although the Supreme Court’s decision has rendered legally null and void the recognition of the “the supremacy of God” in the preamble to the constitution, we nevertheless continue to demand the withdrawal of this phrase because it contradicts both the spirit and the letter of the Court’s ruling and is incompatible with fundamental rights. Furthermore, the principle of religious neutrality of the state, emphasized by the judges, may very well have positive implications for secularism that go well beyond the specific issue of prayer.

Libres penseurs athéesAtheist Freethinkers
Montreal, 20 April 2015

Other signing associations (in alphabetical order):

Individuals:

  • Veronica Abbass, editor-in-chief, Canadian Atheist
  • Ferid Chikhi, conseiller en intégration socioculturelle
  • Dr. Richard G. L. Thain

The MLQ wishes to thank the group Atheist Freethinkers for its support of the cause of secularism and for its publication of this declaration.

6 thoughts on “Major Victory for Secularism in Canada!

  1. What no one asked me to sign! hmmph!

  2. Applause!

  3. I’m responding to your blog entry, to present another perspective on the value of prayer before council meetings in Canada. As a grade 8 student in Brooks Alberta I attend a faith based school, and I think that if Atheists do not believe in prayer then prayer should not offend them. I don’t actually think that when religious people pray before council meetings, it doesn’t literally offend any Atheists who are attending the meeting. But if that truly is the case, it makes absolutely no sense that someone who believes prayer between a human being and God or a god would
    Canadian heritage comes from religion, not just from the first Europeans to settle in Canada, but also the First Nations! Because Atheists don’t believe in the Christian God and are offended by Christian prayer then they must be offended by any religious prayer…
    If any Atheist wants to tell me why prayer offends you, it would be great to know. Because I have a very hard time understanding why something like prayer offends you if you don’t believe that prayer doesn’t have an effect either way.

  4. Caleb

    You start your comment by telling me you are going to “present another perspective on the value of prayer before council meetings in Canada.” You have not done that.

    If you want to know why prayer offends me or other writers, please read my posts or the posts by other Canadian Atheist writers.

    If you have any questions for me, you can contact me through the “Contact” page

  5. Hi Caleb,

    Good for you for taking the time to read this post and to make the effort to understand and respond to it.

    Other commenters have replied to your questions far more ably than I ever could and I invite you to read and respond to them and to read the other posts on this site to get a sense of what atheists are and are not.

    I think you find that they are pretty much like you are, they have the same sorts of hopes, dreams, fears and concerns that you are familiar with from interacting with your family, school mates, teachers and neighbors.

    I also encourage you to continue your exploration of the intersection of religion and secular society by taking advantage of the many resources that the Internet has to offer.

    You have already taken the most important first step of seeking to confirm what you have been told by your family, teachers and I assume religious leaders with an independent source and you have everything to gain and nothing to lose by continuing in this exciting journey.

    I wish you the best of luck in this endeavor.

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