Saanich Mayor Fred Haynes delivers the inaugural address at council’s swearing-in ceremony in November 2018. The ceremony included blessings from representatives of two Christian churches. (Black Press Media file photo)
Saanich Mayor Fred Haynes delivers the inaugural address at council’s swearing-in ceremony in November, 2018. The ceremony included blessings from representatives of two Christian churches – a fact highlighted in a report released by the BC Humanist Associaton on Tuesday. (Black Press Media file photo)

Saanich Mayor Fred Haynes delivers the inaugural address at council’s swearing-in ceremony in November 2018. The ceremony included blessings from representatives of two Christian churches. (Black Press Media file photo) Saanich Mayor Fred Haynes delivers the inaugural address at council’s swearing-in ceremony in November, 2018. The ceremony included blessings from representatives of two Christian churches – a fact highlighted in a report released by the BC Humanist Associaton on Tuesday. (Black Press Media file photo)

Atheist group claims Christian-based prayer at inaugural Vancouver Island council meetings violates court ruling

Blessings violate Supreme Court decision that prayer in council is discriminatory

Several Vancouver Island communities, including Victoria and Saanich, are among B.C. municipalities that have included prayer during council proceedings.

The BC Humanist Association, a self-defined voice for atheists, agnostics and the non-religious of B.C., released a report Tuesday that found 23 out of 162 B.C. municipalities had included prayer during their 2018 inaugural meetings. The association claims those prayers are in violation of the 2015 Supreme Court of Canada’s Saguenay ruling and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees “freedom of conscience and religion.”

“The separation of religion and government is fundamental to democracy,” said Teale Phelps Bondaroff, research coordinator for the BC Humanist Association. “You can’t have a democracy that excludes some people or that favours some people over others. That’s just not a good functioning government.”

The Supreme Court’s 2015 Saguenay decision – Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay – ruled that prayer in municipal council meetings was discriminatory and should not be permitted.

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Responding to an argument that abstaining from prayer amounted to bias in favour of atheism or agnosticism, the Supreme Court noted a distinction between unbelief and true neutrality, writing that “true neutrality presupposes abstention, but it does not amount to a stand favouring one view over another.”

The BC Humanist Association notes that, since that decision, many councils across Canada have abolished prayer from council meetings – but evidently not all have done so. The investigation targeted 2018 inaugural meetings that followed a province-wide municipal election. Inaugural meetings were selected because they tend to include more ceremonial elements.

While none of the B.C. municipalities investigated included prayer in regular meetings, several Island communities had included Christian-based prayer or blessings in their inaugural 2018 meetings including Victoria, Saanich, Lake Cowichan, Nanaimo, Parksville and Qualicum Beach.

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The City of Victoria’s meeting opened with a multi-faith blessing from a reverend of the Christ Church Cathedral.

“May God, your God fill you with hope, motivate you with faith, and bind you together in love,” preached Reverend Ansley Tucker.

The City of Victoria adamantly denies the use of prayer in its 2018 inaugural meeting and says it is fully in compliance with legal obligations to preserve religious neutrality.

“Although there was a First Nations Blessing delivered by a Songhees Nation Elder and an Invocation delivered by the Dean of the Christ Church Cathedral as part of the meeting, neither constituted a religious practice,” said Bill Eisenhauer, spokesperson for the city. “The review of the Invocation makes it clear that, although delivered by a religious official, it was not a prayer but a contemplative appeal to help guide council’s future deliberations. Neither discriminated against anyone or contravened Canadian law, including the Supreme Court of Canada decision in the 2015 Saguenay case.”

The District of Saanich included two prayers; a ‘blessing’ and a ‘multi-faith blessing’ – both delivered by clergy of Christian sects.

The latter was performed by a pastor of the Victoria Church of the Nazarene. That pastor specifically referenced “our Father in heaven” and ended the blessing with, ‘in the name of Jesus. Amen.”

The District of Saanich has declined a request for comment.

Phelps Bondaroff maintained that citizens – religious or not – should care about religious prayer being included in municipal proceedings.

“If you have the inclusion of one group, you’re excluding other groups and you’re suggesting the state endorses or supports, in some way, the religion you’re including,” he said. “There’s lots of different denominations of different religions, it’s impossible to accommodate them all.”

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