Chianello: Supreme Court ruling on prayer echoes through Ottawa's City Hall

Ottawa City Hall. Ottawa Citizen

“Almighty God, let us work together for all of our people.”

When I heard those words spoken at the start of the first city council meeting I covered more than five years ago, I almost fell off my chair. Having grown up in an era when the notion of separating church and state was considered the way forward by progressive governments, hearing the word “God” throughout official government proceedings was something of a shock.

At Wednesday’s meeting, then again, there was no prayer — perhaps for the first time in the history of Ottawa’s city council.

Moments before the meeting began at 10 a.m., the Supreme Court of Canada issued a ruling that the municipal council of Saguenay, Que., couldn’t open its meetings with a Catholic prayer, which suddenly cast a legal shadow over Ottawa’s practice of starting its meeting with a reference to “Almighty God.”

So our properly cautious Mayor Jim Watson began Wednesday’s meeting by reading a prepared commentary explaining that, in light of the court’s decision, the city would “be reviewing this practice to ensure that the City of Ottawa conforms to the Supreme Court’s ruling.”

The mayor then asked for a moment of reflection before introducing the community guests who were to sing O Canada, as is the usual custom.

The surprising change of routine was a jarring reminder of the charged relationship between religion and public life. Every December we argue over our right to wish each other a Merry Christmas or the appropriateness of erecting a decorated fir in the town square. How much religion is too much? How important are traditions?

But a custom — such as a Christmas tree — is not exactly the same as the official proceedings of an elected government. And surely Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling surprised few.

Consider that the Saguenay council prayer began and ended with elected officials — there to represent all the residents of the municipality — making the sign of the cross, which is accompanied by the intonation, “In the name of the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit.” There was a crucifix hanging in the council chambers. It’s virtually impossible to see how this Catholic practice could not impinge on freedom of moral sense and religion — or lack thereof.

Different levels of government have dealt with the issue of prayer in the legislature quite a lot of ways. The House of Commons prayer, recited before the cameras are turned on, also begins with “Almighty God,” but includes considerably less fire and brimstone than the pre-1994 version. As recently as 2008, only the Lord’s Prayer was recited at Queen’s Park. Nowadays, the provincial legislature hears prayers from different religions on a rotating basis. (This seems like a fraught “solution” at best  — what happens when the Jedis want in? And do atheists get a turn?)

Most rational people can agree that reciting a single-denomination prayer throughout a government proceeding infringes on a person’s freedom of moral sense and religion. Indeed, the Appeal Court of Ontario determined in 1999 that the Penetanguishene town council’s practice of saying the Lord’s Prayer at the start of meetings infringed on citizens’ fundamental rights of freedom on moral sense and religion under the Canadian charter.

But that decision didn’t deter Ottawa’s council from its prayer practice — it merely made councillors more cognizant of the importance of choosing its words carefully.

And as far as prayers go, Ottawa’s is fairly innocuous. But it is still a prayer. It’s a request for help from a God in whom many people do not imagine.

I am not the praying sort, but one valuable contribution of the council prayer is that it starts the meeting on a serious note. I suspect that’s what Watson likes about it (he self-identifies as a Christian, even though he admits to a poor church attendance — unless there’s a bake sale happening, of course).

But the moment of reflection that Watson called for Wednesday provided a similar tone of gravitas, without offending or excluding any citizens of this city.

If we begin future council meetings with the mayor saying, “Let us all take a moment to reflect how we will work together for all of our people,” some councillors may silently call on their God for guidance, others may look to inspirational figures or writings, and others still may take a mini-mental-vacation to Jamaica. Those are their personal reflections, to which they are entitled.

But they don’t seem to be entitled to impose them on others.

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