Armstrong and Spallumcheen are among a number of B.C. municipalities found by an atheist organization to be in violation of religious neutrality laws because they held prayer sessions at past inaugural council meetings.
According to a report by the BC Humanist Association (BCHA) released Tuesday, Nov. 24, 23 municipalities in the province began their 2018 inaugural council meetings with prayers, all of which were delivered by members of the Christian clergy.
The BCHA report cites a landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision, Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay, which found that beginning council sessions with prayer is unconstitutional. The case began in 2006 when a Saguenay, Que., resident raised a complaint to the mayor over his “overtly religious beginnings” of regular council sessions, according to the report.
In a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court found that the state has a “duty of religious neutrality” that was violated by beginning a session of council with a prayer, considering it an infringement on a person’s freedom of conscience and religion.
Following the study, the BCHA contacted the 23 municipalities to inform them of the Saguenay decision and ask they comply with its ruling.
About 70 per cent of the municipalities responded to the BCHA, according to the report. Some said they would review the report and their current procedures. Others, including Spallumcheen, directly committed to eliminating prayer from future inaugural meetings.
The BCHA named Spallumcheen’s response as “among the most promising,” along with Trail. Both directly committed steer clear of prayer sessions in future meetings.
Armstrong did not respond directly to the BCHA’s request. On Wednesday, Nov. 25, Armstrong CAO Kevin Bertles responded to the report following a Morning Star inquiry.
“We don’t have a policy to do with inaugurations, so I’ve reviewed the Humanist report and we will come up with a policy to exclude an invocation of any kind,” Bertles said.
The Saguenay decision was rendered in 2015, giving municipalities just under three years to strip religious prayer from their procedures before the inaugural meetings following the 2018 municipal election.
“We recognize that it is possible that municipalities, and in particular municipal staff and elected officials caught up in the process of organizing an inaugural meeting, might not have been aware of the ruling or its impact on the elements included in an inaugural meeting,” The BCHA report reads. “We also understand that the decision-making process regarding what elements are included in an inaugural meeting may vary from municipality to municipality.”
Since Christianity is the dominant religion in the province, the BCHA said it anticipated that most prayers at inaugural meetings would be delivered by members of Christian sects.
“It was not expected that all those delivering prayers would be Christian,” the report reads.
BCHA researchers based the report on minutes and video recordings of municipal council meetings across the province. The secular organization said it will remind municipalities about religious neutrality laws prior to the next round of inaugural meetings in 2022.