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A recent Supreme Court decision prompted Council to get legal advice as to whether the practice of saying the Lord’s Prayer at Council meetings should continue. Suzanne E. Hunt at law firm Templeman Menninga said that the “legal ability of a Council to recite any kind of prayer before Council meetings is well-settled” and that “it is fairly well-settled that municipalities that wish to recite prayers before Council meetings, when such are legally opposed by a member of the community, will be ordered to stop.”  That is, it was illegal even before the recent Supreme Court decision.  But now that the Supreme Court has ruled, and a legal opinion has been given, Council will stop the practice.

Supreme CourtThe issue is that if a Mayor or Councillor recites any prayer at a Council meeting, they are acting in an official capacity and Courts have ruled that “municipalities must remain religiously neutral”.  Individuals not only have the right to religious freedom but also the right to be free from religion.

The Supreme Court said:

The evolution of Canadian society has given rise to a concept of neutrality according to which the state must not interfere in religion and beliefs. The state must instead remain neutral in this regard... By expressing no preference, the state ensures that it preserves a neutral public space that is free of discrimination and in which true freedom to believe or not to believe is enjoyed by everyone equally, given that everyone is valued equally... The state may not act in such a way as to create a preferential public space that favours certain religious groups and is hostile to others. It follows that the state may not, by expressing its own religious preference, promote the participation of believers to the exclusion of non-believers or vice-versa.

The legal opinion did not discuss the argument that the practice is traditional and as such can be continued – we can only presume that this argument does not count amongst lawyers. (Men-only voting was once traditional too).

The alternative being adopted by many municipalities and which will also be adopted by Cobourg is “a moment of silence prior to each Council session which will allow individuals to reflect as they see fit”.  It’s not clear why this should be adopted at all – why not just stop?  Maybe it’s felt a compromise is needed and this is a permissible practice similar to praying – albeit silent.

Download the full legal opinion here.

The recommendation to stop the Christian prayer and instead have a moment’s silence will be put to a vote at Monday’s Committee of the Whole meeting.

Update May 11, 2015

At the Committee of the Whole Meeting, there was a general consensus to go ahead with a minute of silence.  Theresa Rickerby suggested that the National Anthem be played instead (from a recording - not singing).  But others preferred the minute of silence with other options to be considered later so the idea was dropped.  The motion to change to a minute of silence was unanimous.

Update May 19, 2015

The full council passed a motion to change to a moment of silence.  The prayer was said for the last time at the meeting.

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