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Q & A: Prayer in public school could compromise religious neutrality

October 25, 2016 Gordon Thomas, Executive Secretary

Question: I teach for a public school board and each school day begins with recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Given that the school includes students who are not Christian, is this practice still proper?

Answer: The Supreme Court of Canada heard an appeal of a decision of the Quebec Court of Appeal relating to the practice of the Saguenay city council beginning its meetings with recitation of a prayer, after which the mayor and council members made the sign of the cross. A citizen, who considered himself to be an atheist, was uncomfortable with this display (which he felt was religious) and asked the mayor to stop the practice. The mayor refused to do so and so the citizen initiated a challenge, based on religious rights and freedoms in the Quebec charter. The city modified its practices to separate the prayer from the beginning of the meeting and to allow a two-minute break so that citizens could return to council chambers; this was an unacceptable solution to the citizen. The appeal ultimately made its way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The Supreme Court overturned the decision of the Quebec Court of Appeal and ordered the Saguenay city council to cease opening its meetings with a prayer. In its judgment, the court set out its view of the important role of the state: “the state’s duty of religious neutrality results from an evolving interpretation of freedom of conscience and religion. The evolution of Canadian society has given rise to a concept of this neutrality according to which the state must not interfere in religion and beliefs. The state must instead remain neutral in this regard, which means that it must neither favour nor hinder any particular belief, and the same holds true for non-belief.”

The ruling went on to state that the ideal of a free and democratic society requires the state to encourage everyone to participate freely in public life regardless of their beliefs. It added that a neutral public space that’s free from coercion, pressure and judgment in spiritual matters is intended to protect every person’s freedom and dignity and helps preserve the multicultural nature of Canadian society.

“The state’s duty to protect every person’s freedom of conscience and religion means that it may not use its powers in such a way as to promote the participation of certain believers or non-believers in public life to the detriment of others.”

The court found that the prayer was in breach of the state’s duty of neutrality and resulted in “a distinction, exclusion and preference based on religion” that turned the meetings “into a preferential space for people with theistic beliefs.” Non-believers could participate, but “the price for doing so was isolation, exclusion and stigmatization.” In the court’s view, the accommodation of time to re-enter council chambers after the prayer exacerbated the discrimination. The court found that the interference with the citizen’s freedom of conscience and religion was more than trivial or insubstantial.

Given the Supreme Court of Canada decision, it may not be proper for public school boards to require the Lord’s Prayer to be recited. Such a practice would compromise the state’s duty of religious neutrality because it would promote the participation of certain believers to the detriment of others. Given their unique constitutional standing in Alberta, the right of Roman Catholic Separate school boards to require prayer is not affected by this ruling. ❚

Questions for consideration in this ­column are welcome. Please address them to Gordon Thomas at Barnett House (

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