This morning the Supreme Court heard the oral argument in Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (Ville de), a case on the validity, under the Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms of a municipal by-law authorizing the mayor and those municipal councillors who wish it to publicly read a prayer just prior to the official start of business at municipal council meetings. An additional issue is the permissibility of an installation of religious symbols ― a sculpture of the Sacred Heart and a crucifix in the hall where the council meets. It is hard to tell which way the argument went. Indeed, my own impression, for what little it’s worth, is that at its conclusion, the Court was left with just as many questions as it had in the beginning, and the parties did not do much to help it answer the difficult questions the case presents.
Whether deliberately or because he did not know better, the appellants’ lawyer focused almost exclusively on the “small” questions ― the standard of review, the Court of Appeal’s dismissal of the appellants’ expert’s opinion, which had been accepted by the Human Rights Tribunal, which heard the matter in the first instance, and the effect of the prayer and the surrounding controversy on the individual complainant, Alain Simoneau. Even when Justice Lebel directly told him that the Court was interested in the broader questions of principle, the appellants’ lawyer more or less ignored him and stuck to his chosen themes. For him, the case is just an ordinary discrimination complaint and should be treated as such. The Human Rights tribunal heard the evidence and interpreted its home statute; it is entitled to deference; end of story. The big debate about state neutrality? That’s just incidental, he told Justice Lebel; and anyway, he added to an incredulous Justice Wagner, nobody is really against state neutrality or in favour of a state religion. The implications for the prayer at the House of Commons? Well, there are no municipal services being offered at the House of Commons, and the municipal legislation saying anyone is entitled to participate does not apply, so it’s not the same. The preamble to the Constitution Act, 1982, which mentions says that “Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God”? But the mayor of Saguenay wasn’t reciting the preamble! Do you have a test for us to distinguish cultural and religious manifestations, asked Justice Wagner. No, Justice, each case must be considered on its own facts.
The other parties, however, were more than happy to speak of general principles. They did not always succeed at staying at that level however.
The Canadian Secular Alliance, which intervened to support the appellants, tried to draw a line between official or state action, and the personal manifestations of faith by public employees or even officers. In the former area, religion is proscribed; in the latter it is permitted and indeed may have to be accommodated. It also pointed out that the freedom of religion jurisprudence has moved from a concern only with coercion to one with exclusion, even in the absence of coercion. Even if official prayer is not coercive, it is exclusionary, and thus impermissible.
The Canadian Civil Liberty Liberties Association, for its part, wanted to stress that even a non-denominational prayer is still a religious manifestation. But what’s the big deal with it, anyway, asked Justice Moldaver. Is there some sort of objective standard by which we can judge an interference with a person’s religious freedom? Shouldn’t we just put up with these little things? If the purpose of the state action is religious, the CCLA argued, then its effects are irrelevant. But the whole point, said the Chief Justice, is that we have trouble defining where the “religious” starts. And the CCLA, no more than the appellants, didn’t have a general test for the Courts. Triers of fact can handle that, in light of all the circumstances.
The respondents, for their part, spent a considerable amount of time discussing the meaning of laïcité and state neutrality, although they started by asserting that rather than these principles, it is their limits that are really at issue in this case. And limits there must be, lest we lose our collective frame of reference and end up lost in something called either “radical liberalism” or “unalloyed multiculturalism.” The state must not enforce religious observance of course, but it can have its own religious “colour,” which reflects its history and tradition. That’s what prayer by-law does. And as for the mayor doing the sign of the cross while reciting it, well, people do that sort of thing all time, even baseball players. But, Justice Wagner pointed out, the mayor isn’t just a baseball player. Doesn’t it matter, Justice Lebel asked, that the state not identify with a religion? But the Constitution says the Canadian state is founded on a recognition of the supremacy of God, the respondents argued. It is a theistic state. So long as the prayer is just theistic, it is within the bounds of what the state itself is. And its generically theistic text is what matters, not whatever gestures the mayor might make while reciting it. Anyway, the prayer by-law ― unlike the Lord’s Day Act that was struck down in R. v. Big M Drug Mart,  1 S.C.R. 295 ― is not coercive. And the fact public officials invoke the help of God isn’t at all unusual ― they all do it when they swear their oaths of office, even judges.
For the Evangelical Fellowship, the case is about the nature of a secular society and the place of religion in such a society. A secular society, it argued, is not one devoid of religion, or one where religion has been confined to the private sphere. It is non-sectarian ― but not non-religious. Justice Moldaver wondered, at that point, about a “prayer” by a secularist public official, expressing gratitude for the blessings of Canadian society and saying that none of them have anything to do with a God in which we don’t believe anyway. Would that be OK? It wouldn’t, the Fellowship asserted. But is that different from the Saguenay mayor’s expressing gratitude to God? Well, we cannot favour a specific worldview. So, Justice Abella asked, the state cannot favour religion over non-religion? No, you have to look at the facts. We have prayers ― and the God Save the Queen, too ― at Remembrance Day ceremonies. And there can be a role for religion in the performance of public officials’ duties, so long these duties are carried out in a neutral fashion. To hold otherwise is to favour non-religion.
Finally, a group of Christian organizations argued that the Court, and everyone, could really have it both ways. Rights need not be weighed and made to prevail one over another ― they can be reconciled. Non-denominational prayer is a form of reconciliation; it allows the state not to sponsor religion while not excluding it. Banning the prayer leaves atheists and agnostics in control of the public square. Let’s all live in harmony instead, without winners and losers.
If there’s one thing we can be pretty sure of, it’s that this wish, or prayer, or whatever it was ― Justice Abella spent some time with the various lawyers wondering what the differences between wishes and prayers were ― will not be granted. Both sides have the same complaint: their opponents want to own the public square, and to exclude them. For the secularists, allowing even a non-denominational prayer to continue means ongoing exclusion, subjectively anyway. The only way reconciliation could happen would be for both sides not to take this whole business too seriously, as Justice Moldaver suggested ― but nobody, I suspect, will take up that suggestion.
And if there must be a winner and a loser, who should it be? There is an old litigation adage: if you have the facts, thump the facts; if you have the law, thump the law; if don’t have either, thump the table. It seems to me, however, that at the Supreme Court, the winning arguments will have a bit of everything ― fact-thumping, law-thumping, and table thumping. This morning, nobody had all three. The appellants, though they made a good case on the facts, and a half-decent one on the law, steadfastly refused to thump the table. The respondents shied away from the facts, which are not exactly favourable to them. And even the interveners could not bring it all together. The Court was looking for a general, thumping principle to dispose of the case ― some kind of demarcation between the the formerly-religious-but-effectively-cultural, the trivially-and-therefore-tolerably religious, and the impermissibly religious. It did not get that.