A Green Party legislator has sparked a debate over the role of mandatory Christian prayers in New Brunswick’s legislative assembly, calling instead for periods of silence as practised in Quebec.
Kevin Arseneau said Monday that when the house returns in May he’ll bring in a motion calling for an exploration of practices other than the speaking of Christian prayers for the Queen, the legislature and the Lord’s Prayer before legislature business commences.
“I find it’s exclusive. It’s not inclusive enough. In New Brunswick we have many people, practising many religions. And there’s also the separation of state and religion,” said the member for Kent North.
“A moment of silence would generate the inclusivity and give everyone a chance to reflect in their own manner.”
However, the push for change by Arseneau – who has declined to take his turn speaking the prayers in the assembly – has been swiftly shut down by Tory Premier Blaine Higgs.
Higgs said last week he finds it sad that some are attempting to “pick away” at historical traditions in the province, and he won’t change the prayer practices so long as he’s premier.
A spokeswoman for Kris Austin, the leader of the People’s Alliance Party of New Brunswick, said her leader is on the record opposing Arseneau’s plan. The People’s Alliance has been providing support to the minority Tory government.
“He (Austin) is opposed to removing prayer from the legislature because it is tradition. He has stated he would vote against the motion,” wrote spokeswoman Laverne Stewart.
However, Arseneau said the tradition argument from Higgs and Austin isn’t sufficient.
“If we would only think about tradition, Catholics wouldn’t be allowed to vote in New Brunswick, and women wouldn’t be allowed to vote.”
He said he’ll carry on his push to have a system of silence similar to that practised in some provincial and municipal jurisdictions in Canada.
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Raissa Marks, a 39-year-old resident of Riverview, N.B., wrote to Arseneau to express her support of his effort, even as it faces a likely defeat in the legislature.
“When I learned last week that they did a Christian prayer at the beginning of the legislature … I felt they were doing something there that didn’t represent me and my religion,” she said.
“I think this has opened an important conversation and reflection among those who pay attention to what’s going on.”
The neighbouring provinces of Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia both continue to have Christian prayers said before the legislature opens to the public, while there is no prayer in Newfoundland and Labrador.
David Coon, the leader of the Green Party and a practising Christian, has said he prefers the example of Ontario, where prayers from diverse faiths are spoken in the legislature, along with the Lord’s Prayer.
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John Milloy, director of the centre for public ethics at Martin Luther University College, said Coon’s view helps promote and celebrate a variety of religious perspectives – rather than creating a system of “winner and losers” between religious and non-religious citizens.
“Why can’t we institute a system similar to what happened in Ontario where we recognize that diversity? Different faith traditions can provide prayers and reflections and for those with no faith tradition you go to humanist traditions, or moments of silence,” he said from his office in Waterloo, Ont.
“Let’s celebrate that. Let’s not turn this into, ‘If that Green guy wins then the religious people are out.’ Let’s celebrate all perspectives.”
Arseneau said he had hoped the legislature’s procedures committee would hear the various proposals in a wide-ranging discussion.
“What I wish is that we can have a civilized discussion about this and put many options on the table and have a real, in-depth, civil discussion about it,” he said.