A report released this fall is raising questions about the use of prayer at some Okanagan council meetings.
The BC Humanist Association says some councils in the region unconstitutionally included prayers in their inaugural meetings two years ago.
However, one area mayor says it’s a tradition he wants to continue.
The association compiled a report looking at 162 councils around the province and found 23 of them, including three in the Okanagan, had unconstitutional prayers as part of their inaugural council meetings in 2018.
Teale Phelps Bondaroff, a research coordinator for the association, said the problem with those prayers is that they exclude people.
“Including prayer in a council meeting necessarily promotes one set of beliefs over others. It tells people that the state endorses this set of beliefs and not others,” Phelps Bondaroff said.
In 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the council in Saguenay, Que., can’t pray in council chambers.
Phelps Bondaroff said that ruling also makes prayer in B.C. council meetings unconstitutional.
“The Supreme Court was very firm that the state has a duty of religious neutrality and that means not including prayer in municipal meetings,” Phelps Bondaroff said.
The North Okanagan City of Armstrong is one of the municipalities that the report found included prayer at their 2018 inaugural council meeting.
“I’ve found this to be a very unique tradition, a good tradition,” said Armstrong Mayor Chris Pieper.
“The inaugural meetings are usually very short so it really adds a bit of community to our council inauguration.”
The mayor said he and city staff were unaware of the Supreme Court ruling and simply carried on with the tradition.
“I’ve not had one complaint from one person in our community about having a minister giving a reading at our very inaugural meeting,” Pieper said.
Pieper said he’d like the tradition to continue, but the issue is now up for discussion at an upcoming council meeting.
“We will do what is legally correct. If we can’t do it, we can’t do it,” Pieper said.
The report found Peachland and Spallumcheen were also among the municipalities that hosted an inaugural prayer.
Spallumcheen told BC Humanist Association researchers it won’t be continuing with the practice going forward.
The Mayor of Peachland said she understands if some are not happy about the non-denominational blessing at the municipality’s inaugural meeting.
“If it was to happen again and I was running again and elected again, I was going to make sure we didn’t have it there. I know it is really important to a lot of people, but there is such a diversity of religion out there…I really don’t think it should be at a council ceremony,” Peachland Mayor Cindy Fortin said.
Fortin said she doesn’t think anyone involved was aware of the Supreme Court ruling in 2018.
“There was no intention to go against a ruling,” Fortin said.
“I did express at the time that I wasn’t very comfortable with it but it had already been planned and organized…but I’m pretty sure it won’t occur in 2022.”
The BC Humanist Association says it will be watching to see how all municipalities proceed at the next round of inaugurations in 2022.
The Humanist Association describes itself as a voice for “humanists, atheists, agnostics, and the non-religious.”