OTTAWA – The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled the municipal council in the Quebec town of Saguenay cannot open its meetings with a prayer.
In a unanimous decision today, the country’s top court said reciting a Catholic prayer at council meetings infringes on freedom of conscience and religion.
The ruling puts an end to a nine-year legal battle that began with a complaint filed by atheist Alain Simoneau and a secular-rights organization against Saguenay Mayor Jean Tremblay.
In 2011, Quebec’s human rights tribunal ordered an end to the prayers, demanded that a crucifix in the city council chamber be removed and awarded damages to Simoneau.
But the outspoken mayor fought back, raising money from supporters through the city’s website. Tremblay said it was a battle for Quebec’s Roman Catholic heritage.
The Quebec Court of Appeal overturned the tribunal in 2013.
The appeals court expressed some reservations about religious symbols in the council chamber, but concluded the city imposed no religious views on its citizens.
It ruled reciting a prayer does not violate the religious neutrality of the city and if the recitation interfered with Simoneau’s moral values, the interference was trivial.
The Supreme Court of Canada agreed to hear the case last year.
While the case was before the courts, the prayer was replaced by two minutes of silence.
The legal melee was one of several high-profile cases in recent years that have dominated the social discourse in the province, centred on themes like identity, values and religion.
The Supreme Court said Canadian society has evolved and 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,” the judgment said.
“This neutrality requires that the state neither favour nor hinder any particular belief, and the same holds true for non-belief. It requires that the state abstain from taking any position and thus avoid adhering to a particular belief.
“When all is said and done, the state’s duty to protect every person’s freedom of conscience and religion means that it may not use its powers in such a way as to promote the participation of certain believers or non-believers in public life to the detriment of others.”
Tremblay is only expected to address reporters on Thursday.