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Should politicians pray? Canada’s Supreme Court says no, but parliamentarians say ‘Amen’

ABOVE: Two years ago, a unanimous Supreme Court ruling banned city councillors from praying at the start of meetings. Canada's highest court said prayers -- no matter which faith -- have no place in government. But it turns out the rules don't apply to everyone, and as Vassy Kapelos reports, Oshawa's mayor wants that to change.

Every day in Ottawa Members of Parliament from across Canada gather behind closed doors to pray.

“Almighty God, we give thanks for the great blessings which have been bestowed on Canada and its citizens, including the gifts of freedom, opportunity, and peace that we enjoy.”

Since 1877, the daily prayer has marked the beginning of official business at the House of Commons. The prayer is led by Speaker of the House, Geoff Regan, who invites all MPs that wish to join to stand and worship.

According to the rules of Parliament, no official business, debate or deliberation may begin in the House until the daily prayer has been recited. This includes Question Period — the portion of the day when opposition MPs challenge the government on matters of public policy.

READ MORE: Could court decision barring prayer from Quebec council affect Parliament

This practice isn’t limited to Ottawa. Eight of 10 provincial legislatures begin the day with some form of prayer. Only Quebec and Newfoundland do not have daily prayers. The three territories also start their day with a prayer.

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Depending on the province or territory, the nature of these prayers varies significantly. In some cases, it’s a Christian prayer, while in others it’s a non-denominational prayer or spiritual blessing.

But according to a 2015 Supreme Court of Canada decision, political institutions from across the country must remain neutral with respect to religion.

WATCH: City councils mull how to respond to Supreme Court prayer ruling

And while politicians have a right to worship privately as they see fit, the Court’s unanimous ruling was unequivocal when it said public meetings such as municipal council hearings cannot begin with a prayer.

“Federal and provincial governments are under an equal duty to maintain neutrality with respect to religion,” said Carissima Mathen, a law professor and constitutional expert at the University of Ottawa. “But the fact is, it’s much more difficult to challenge provincial and legislative assemblies in that regard because they have special privileges and immunities that municipal governments do not.”

The special powers Mathen is referring to are known as “parliamentary privilege.” They date back to the 1689 English Bill of Rights — an act that granted English politicians supreme authority over the day-to-day operations of the House of Commons.

This practice has since been adopted by Commonwealth countries from around the world. It’s the reason why federal and provincial politicians can say whatever they like in legislative assemblies without the fear of being sued or being subject to court rulings (this includes the Supreme Court decision that banned daily prayer from the start of city council meetings).

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Local politician heartbroken over loss of prayer

It doesn’t sit right with some politicians that federal and provincial governments can continue to pray, while local leaders are forced to abandon a practice they say has been a part of the fabric of their communities since their formation.

“It broke my heart the day we stopped it,” said John Henry, the mayor of Oshawa, Ont.

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When the Supreme Court made its decision in 2015, Henry and Oshawa’s city council initially refused to abide by the ruling. They weren’t sure if the Court’s decision applied to them and no one had ever had a problem with the prayer before (The City of Oshawa used to start its council meetings with the Lord’s Prayer, a Christian prayer).

WATCH: Oshawa mayor says it ‘broke my heart’ day council forced to end reciting Lord’s Prayer

Oshawa mayor says it ‘broke my heart’ day council forced to end reciting Lord’s Prayer
Oshawa mayor says it ‘broke my heart’ day council forced to end reciting Lord’s Prayer

It wasn’t until a citizen within their own community challenged the practice — saying it violated his rights to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion — that Henry and city councillors finally decided to give up the prayer.

Meanwhile, Henry says he doesn’t understand why he has to follow one set of rules, while other levels of government can hide behind 300-year-old legislation in order to essentially do whatever they want.

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“If the other levels of government think it’s okay, then why haven’t they put rules in place to protect municipalities?” Henry said. “If it’s fair for them, why isn’t it fair for us?”

READ MORE: Supreme Court rules prayers can’t continue at Quebec council meetings

Ultimately, Henry says the decision to end the prayer was based on a belief in democracy and respect for the rule of law.

“When the Supreme Court makes a decision you have to honour that,” Henry said. “It doesn’t matter how I feel inside. It comes back to the issue of a law… Here at the city, we honour the Supreme Court‘s decision, I just wish the other levels of government would look at it the same way.”

Government faces backlash over ending prayer

While Parliament has a right to pray, Mathen says that doesn’t necessarily mean it should.

She appreciates how important religion is to people, but insists there should be a clear division between church and state.

“I actually don’t think they should be acting in a way that violates our principles around religious neutrality,” said Mathen. “This may not be at the top of the list in terms of pressing day-to-day issues that [politicians] deal with, but it does send a broader signal.”

READ MORE: No more prayers at Edmonton city council meetings

According to Mathen, this signal is that if you believe in something other than that represented in the prayer, or if you are not religious at all, then state-sponsored prayer could make you feel like less of a citizen — as if your values or opinions are less meaningful.

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But for Bill Blair, the former Toronto Police Chief and current parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Justice, the daily prayer in the House of Commons is a chance to reflect on the work ahead.

Blair says that whenever he’s in the House he attends the daily prayer.

“I think for those who choose to worship, it’s an opportunity to do that,” Blair said.

“It’s also presented as an opportunity for reflection. And given the important work we do, all of us could benefit from that moment.”

Meanwhile, in Ontario’s provincial legislature, each day is started with the Speaker reading the Lord’s Prayer.

In 2008, Premier Dalton McGuinty considered removing the prayer from the start of Question Period. The public backlash was tremendous. Even his own mother was upset.

“My mom stopped taking my calls,” said McGuinty in 2008.

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Eventually, McGuinty’s Liberal government bowed to public pressure and decided to keep the prayer. As a compromise, a series of non-denominational prayers were added to the start of each day to make the practice more inclusive.

Following the 2015 Supreme Court ruling, then Leader of the federal Liberals, Justin Trudeau, said it was important to respect the decision of the Supreme Court and protect the rights of individuals.

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WATCH: From the Archives: Ontario Liberals bow to pressure, keep Lord’s Prayer (2008)

From the Archives: Ontario Liberals bow to pressure, keep Lord’s Prayer (2008)
From the Archives: Ontario Liberals bow to pressure, keep Lord’s Prayer (2008)

Today, however, the Prime Minister’s Office refused to comment on whether the prayer should be abandoned or perhaps changed so that it is at least recited in front of the public.

Instead, the PMO said any decisions regarding the prayer’s future are the responsibility of the committee that handles House rules and procedures.

According to a spokesperson, Trudeau does not typically attend the prayer because of scheduling, but he does make appearances for special occasions such as the speech paying tribute to Mauril Bélanger who died of ALS in 2016.

Meanwhile, in December of last year, the committee responsible for these rules did consider ending the prayer, or at least removing the word “Amen.” But no decision was made at the time and the committee has no plans to raise the issue again in the future.

“While they have the power to [pray], they should be held accountable for their decision to do it,” said Mathen.

“Prayer is obviously important to many people and there’s nothing wrong with prayer. But when you’re acting in a public capacity – particularly in a law making capacity – I think you have to be really careful about the message you’re sending.