Following a 9-0 Supreme Court ruling on April 15 that Saguenay city council’s practice of opening meetings with a Roman Catholic-themed prayer was unconstitutional, Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall and Federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay both expressed support for the continued use of Christian prayer in the Legislature and House of Commons.
We have an article in the April 16-29 Prairie Dog that argues that, in light of the Supreme Court ruling, this is not a tenable legal position.
The ruling dealt specifically with a municipal council. But in its judgment the court refers repeatedly to the “state” in discussing the duty of neutrality that is owed to all citizens when it comes to constitutional freedoms of religion, conscience, assembly and whatnot. If anything, University of Ottawa law professor Carissima Mathen notes in Prairie Dog, the duty owed by higher (and more powerful) levels of government is even greater than at the municipal level.
Provincial legislatures and the House of Commons do enjoy a degree of autonomy through parliamentary privilege. This privilege is tied to rights such as free speech, freedom from coercion and the ability to launch inquiries that MLAs and MPs need to make decisions as our representatives in government.
This privilege is not absolute, however, and it’s a huge stretch to suggest that prayer is integral to the proper functioning of the Legislature/House of Commons and thus protected by parliamentary privilege. If individual politicians want to pray on their own, that is their right. But prayer should not be part of state deliberations at any level.
Also, simply because God is mentioned in the preamble to The Constitution Act (1982) does not mean the Constitution is interpreted through a Christian filter. In fact, the Supreme Court specifically said in the judgment that nothing in the preamble justifies limiting the constitutional rights of Canadians.
Were someone to launch a human rights complaint against prayer in the Saskatchewan legislature and/or House of Commons, defending the practice would be “far from a slam dunk”, says Mathen.
Both the Wall and Harper governments have a history of throwing good money after bad in defending indefensible legislation in court. Were they to adopt the same legal strategy here, not only would a lot of scarce government resources be wasted, they would also be flaunting their opposition to a Supreme Court ruling that is perfectly in keeping with contemporary Canadian society where a multitude of religions exist, and many Canadians subscribe to no religious belief at all.