Don't Hype the Belief

In Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City), 2015 SCC 16 the Supreme Court of Canada found a municipal bylaw to be inoperative, because the bylaw had a religious purpose in providing for a prayer to be said during council meetings. The Quebec municipality of Saguenay adopted a bylaw that set out the text of a prayer containing exhortations to an almighty God to guide council deliberations. The Supreme Court of Canada agreed with a lower tribunal’s finding that the purpose of the prayer was to profess a theistic faith, a purpose inconsistent with the state’s duty of religious neutrality.

Although council prayers may not be a hot topic in British Columbia, the Supreme Court of Canada’s discussion in this case nevertheless provides a reminder of a general limit on the purpose of local government bylaws. Gascon J noted that: “A provision of a statute, of regulations or of a by‑law will be inoperative if its purpose is religious and therefore cannot be reconciled with the state’s duty of neutrality.” Gascon J emphasized that religious neutrality is distinguishable from advocating unbelief in any religion. Whereas a practice by which municipal officials “solemnly declared that the council’s deliberations were based on a denial of God would be just as unacceptable [as a prayer]”, municipal abstention from any practice expressing belief or unbelief “does not amount to a stand favouring one view over another.”

In order to respect the duty of religious neutrality, all local government bylaws and resolutions should not have the purpose of expressing an adherence to certain religious beliefs to the exclusion of all others. The Supreme Court of Canada did acknowledge that the state duty of religious neutrality did not preclude a government from celebrating and preserving the religious heritage of its jurisdiction. Such celebrations must not, however, be discriminatory for a religious purpose.