City Council in Owen Sound will no longer open with a faith blessing or moment of silence and I, for one, am pleased to see that.
I am well aware that statement will place me on the opposite side of the table from my colleagues, and many readers will disagree with me, but I am prepared to sit in that place.
If there is a foundational principle which is reinforced in the decision it is that the state has a duty to be religiously neutral. It cannot, in any aspect of its service to citizens, show any preference or bias towards one religious group over another.
Prayer to a Christian God and simply the act of prayer does that.
There is no argument to be made either, that religious prayer is reflective of the history and tradition of the community or society. By using a specific faith prayer, in this case of the Supreme Court’s decision the Christian Lord’s Prayer, the municipal council of Saguenay, Quebec showed undue preference to Christians over all others. And in doing so, they violated the principle of religious neutrality the Charter requires the state to uphold.
Nor can anyone make the argument that the preamble of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms allows Christian prayer. As Mr. Justice Gascon said in the decision, “The reference to the supremacy of God in the preamble to the Canadian Charter cannot lead to an interpretation of freedom of conscience and religion that authorizes the state to consciously profess a theistic faith.”
In other words, state neutrality means exactly that.
It does not mean that the state is atheistic, on one hand, or adverse to theism on the other. It means the state must intentionally and fully be, neutral. Again, as Mr. Justice Gascon says, “True neutrality presupposes abstention, but it does not amount to a stand favouring one view over another. No such inference can be drawn from the state’s silence.”
So what does that look like?
It means that municipal councils will no longer have, in the case of Owen Sound, a faith blessing or moment of reflection at the beginning.
It means that at all levels of government, except the provincial legislature and House of Commons, which are not governed by this decision, business will be business. The meeting will be called to order by the presiding officer and the business on the agenda will proceed.
I have served on many boards and committees of secular organizations over the years. I have also been a part of many church courts, as we call them in the United Church, committees and meetings.
The secular organizations never began their meetings with prayer. It would not even be considered appropriate to do so.
On the other hand, the Christian church, which seeks guidance from God through the Holy Spirit, always opens a meeting with prayer.
While it may be easy to get upset with the Supreme Court for overturning our comfortable religious apple cart, there is a far more serious and much more difficult task at hand.
Being neutral takes a lot of work. It means rethinking the way we do things, not as to exclude, but to do what we do with true purpose and clarity.
Nobody “won” or “lost” in this decision. We have been challenged to think more clearly and fairly in our approach to government.
What was, no longer is. What will be, we do not know. But at the very least working towards an even handed neutrality for all citizens, no matter what their beliefs, should be our common goal.
Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.