A Prayer for Neutrality

This morning, the Supreme Court delivered its judgment in the municipal prayer case, Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City), 2015 SCC 16, holding that a prayer recited by the Mayor at the beginning of the city council’s meetings, as well the municipal regulation which regulated its recitation, infringed the City’s duty of neutrality and the rights of an atheist citizen, Alain Simoneau. The Court thus delivers a well-deserved rebuke to the Québec Court of Appeal, which had sided with the City in a judgment I suggested bordered on surrealism. The Court’s judgment is almost unanimous, with only Justice Abella not signing onto Justice Gascon’s reasons (the first he has produced alone, and his first for a majority, after his joint dissent in the gun registry case), and only because of a disagreement about standards of review.

Although the City referred to the prayer as “traditional” and sought (successfully at the Court of Appeal) to defend it as a sort of cultural artifact, the prayer was only as old as the City itself ― that is to say that it dated all the way back to… 2002. It was also unmistakably theistic, referring and appealing to “Almighty God.” Besides, as Justice Gascon points out, the mayor and “[o]ther councillors and municipal officials would cross themselves at the beginning and end of the prayer as well.” As for the by-law, it was of an even more recent vintage, having been enacted in 2008, after Mr. Simoneau’s complaint that gave rise to this case had been filed with Québec’s Human Rights Commission.

The first issue Justice Gascon addresses concerns the applicable standards of review. I will not say much about it here, in the interest of (relative) concision. Justice Gascon concludes that, while the Human Rights Tribunal’s holding on the meaning and scope of the state’s religious neutrality must be assessed on a standard of correctness, its other findings, in particular those that concerned the infringement of Mr. Simoneau’s rights and the religious nature of the prayer, had to reviewed on the reasonableness standard. Another preliminary issue was whether the Tribunal, and hence the courts reviewing its decision, could rule on the propriety of the religious symbols present in the halls where the Saguenay council met. Justice Gascon finds that they could not.

The main issues for the Supreme Court were the state’s duty of religious neutrality and the infringement of Mr. Simoneau’s rights (in particular, given the case’s origins in a complaint to a human rights tribunal, his right not to be discriminated against on the basis of religion). The two are closely linked since, as Justice Gascon puts it, “[s]ponsorship of one religious tradition by the state in breach of its duty of neutrality amounts to discrimination against all other such traditions,” [64] as well as to a violation of the freedom of religion itself.

Neutrality, Justice Gascon points out, is not expressly guaranteed by either the Canadian Charter or the Québec one. It is, however, the product of “an evolving interpretation of freedom of conscience and religion,” [71] and “requires that the state neither favour nor hinder any particular belief, and the same holds true for non‑belief.” [72] The state’s siding with one group of believers or non-believers necessarily conveys the message that others are disfavoured or unequal. As a result, the state

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. It is prohibited from adhering to one religion to the exclusion of all others. [76]

This prohibition extends to the state engaging in “religious expression under the guise of cultural or historical reality or heritage.” [78] While Justice Gascon points out that “the Canadian cultural landscape includes many traditional and heritage practices that are religious in nature,” [87] and not all of them are contrary to the duty of neutrality, if the circumstances

reveal an intention to profess, adopt or favour one belief to the exclusion of all others, and if the practice at issue interferes with the freedom of conscience and religion of one or more individuals, it must be concluded that the state has breached its duty of religious neutrality. This is true regardless of whether the practice has a traditional character. [88]

Justice Gascon is careful to specify that “a neutral public space does not mean the homogenization of private players in that space. Neutrality is required of institutions and the state, not individuals.” [74] Indeed, the state must “encourage everyone to participate freely in public life regardless of their beliefs.” [75] However, the duty of neutrality is infringed in cases “[w]here state officials, in the performance of their functions, profess, adopt or favour one belief to the exclusion of all others.” [84]

Applying these principles, Justice Gascon finds that the Tribunal’s conclusion Saguenay prayer amounted to an endorsement of a specific religious position and thus a breach of the City’s duty of neutrality was reasonable. The prayer was unmistakably religious, and was recited by the mayor, who emphasized its religious character. In Justice Gascon’s view,

the recitation of the prayer at the council’s meetings was above all else a use by the council of public powers to manifest and profess one religion to the exclusion of all others. It was much more than the simple expression of a cultural tradition. … [W]hat is at issue here is the state’s adherence, through its officials acting in the performance of their functions, to a religious belief.  [118-19]

As for the fact that, under the by-law, the prayer was held before the official start of the council meetings, so as to allow citizens who did not wish to be present to leave the room and come back, it only “highlights the exclusive effect of the practice.” [101] In short, the City had “turned the [council] meetings into a preferential space for people with theistic beliefs,” [120] which was a more than trivial form of interference with the religious freedom of others, including of course Mr. Simoneau, the complainant, as well as a form of discrimination against them.

Finally, Justice Gascon dismisses a number of other arguments raised by the City and the interveners who supported it. In particular, he states that preventing the state from endorsing a religious position does not amount to forcing it to become agnostic or atheist. Prohibiting the municipal prayer is simply not the equivalent of forcing the City to deny God. The fact that a prayer is non-denominational does not stop its being religious, and thus non-neutral. As for “[t]he reference to the supremacy of God in the preamble to the Canadian Charter,” it “cannot lead to an interpretation of freedom of conscience and religion that authorizes the state to consciously profess a theistic faith.” [147]

In the result, the Supreme Court upholds the Human Rights Tribunal’s orders banning the recitation of the prayer and awarding damages to Mr. Simoneau. It also declares the by-law inoperative and invalid, albeit only vis-à-vis Mr. Simoneau, since an administrative tribunal cannot pronounce a general declaration of invalidity.

* * *

Those who recall my criticism of the Court of Appeal’s decision in this case will not be surprised to learn that I am happy with this outcome. More specifically, I am delighted with the Supreme Court’s strong endorsement of the principle of state neutrality, and with its attention to the concerns, which I raised here, about prayer by officials often being

the product of a familiar public choice problem: officeholders using the powers of their office to advance their personal interests and pet causes, not for the benefit of the public, but rather at its expense.

Justice Gascon’s reasons suggest that this is exactly what he saw the Saguenay mayor, Jean Tremblay, as doing. I am equally happy about the Court’s seeing through the mask of “tradition,” “culture,” and “heritage” which it has been fashionable in Québec to use to hide the state’s support for Catholicism. Indeed, it would be nice if Justice Gascon’s clear-eyed discussion of neutrality prompted Québec’s National Assembly to remove the giant crucifix hanging behind its Speaker’s seat ― though I am not so optimistic as to expect such a thing to happen.

Last but not least, I am also happy with the care Justice Gascon has taken to specify that the duty of neutrality applies not to all persons who find themselves in the public sphere, but to the state and to officials speaking for it. To repeat a passage I have already quoted, neutrality reproves ― “the state’s adherence, through its officials acting in the performance of their functions, to a religious belief,” or the officials’ “use [of] public powers to profess their beliefs.” [119] The fact that an official manifests his or her beliefs “on a personal basis” [119] does not matter. To me, this quite clearly suggests that neutrality does not justify efforts to prevent civil servants from wearing religious clothing or symbols. On the contrary, Justice Gascon’s insistence on the state’s duty to welcome the adherents of a variety of beliefs in public life deserves to be emphasized.

That said, while the general thrust of the decision seems to me quite clear, it may not answer all the questions that the concept of neutrality gives rise to. In particular, it does not articulate very clearly the distinction between those religious manifestations which, because of their predominantly cultural character, do not infringe the principle of neutrality, and those that do, beyond saying that intent matters a lot. This may well be as it should be ― it’s not obvious that there can be a bright dividing line between these categories ― but the debates on this topic will continue.

In any case, even if it does not settle every conceivable question, and despite its perhaps lacking in ringing passages that will capture imaginations, one can hardly have expected a better decision than that which Justice Gascon produced. It is impressive that the Supreme Court’s second-newest member has already made such a mark on its jurisprudence. Today is a great day for religious liberty and equality in Canada and in Québec. Amen.

What to Thump

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,  [1985] 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.

Cui Bono?

In a post published last week, Josh Blackman points to an important question that can help us think about the permissibility of public prayer ― not only prayer at municipal council meetings (the post’s immediate context), which the U.S. Supreme Court recently considered in Town of Greece v. Galloway (a case I briefly discussed here) and which the Supreme Court of Canada will consider in Mouvement Laïque Québécois v. City of Saguenay, but also other instances of public prayer. The question, which prof. Blackman argues is “almost outcome determinative,” concerns “the value of prayer.” As he points out, Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion in Town of Greece repeatedly emphasizes “the value of prayer as lending ‘gravity’ to the lawmaking process.” The dissent, while not rejecting prayer outright, does not seem to attach any particular value to it, and hence, says prof. Blackman, finds it easier to rule for those who object to the Town’s implementation of the prayer. The question of the “value of prayer” is indeed an important one. All the more so since this value can be not only positive (as the majority in Town of Greece and prof. Blackman himself seem to believe) or nil (as the Town of Greece dissenters might think), but also negative, even apart from cases of explicit or implicit coercion.

I have to say that I am much more skeptical than Justice Kennedy or prof. Blackman about whether prayer really has much of a positive value in setting the tone for the deliberations of a legislature or of a town council. There seems to be little evidence, for instance, that the prayers in the U.S. Congress (or in the Canadian Parliament) succeed at “remind[ing] lawmakers to transcend petty differences in pursuit of a higher purpose” (Town of Greece, p. 6), although I suppose one can always say that their petty differences might get even worse than they already are without the benefit of legislative prayers. And while I haven’t studied the issue, of course, I rather doubt that Saguenay’s municipal council does a much better job than those of neighbouring municipalities which do not open their council meetings with prayers, or indeed that its own performance improved in any noticeable way when the Mayor Tremblay went on his prayer crusade.

For my part, I suspect that public prayer is often the product of a familiar public choice problem: officeholders using the powers of their office to advance their personal interests and pet causes, not for the benefit of the public, but rather at its expense. Of course, such roads or bridges to nowhere, monuments to former leaders of the politicians’ parties, and assorted other white elephants are presented and defended as being in the public interest. But what they really do use the resources taken from the public as a whole ― or, “better” yet, from electoral minorities not part of the politicians’ coalitions ― for the benefit of the politicians, their friends, or their supporters. Of course, legislative prayer does not necessarily involve a transfer of public funds (the chaplains who led the prayers in Town of Greece were volunteers; the mayor of Saguenay hasn’t, so far as I know, got a pay raise to compensate him for his new task of leading the municipal council’s prayers). But the principle remains the same: religious majorities of municipal councils or legislatures set up a prayer regime which advances their conception of religion and/or of the duties of a religious official, and possibly also wins them the support of some religious voters, while imposing a cost, no less real for being emotional rather than pecuniary (and even for not reaching the threshold of coercion!) on religious minorities whose political support they can afford to dispense with.

This approach to public prayer ― asking what its value is, and paying attention to public choice concerns ― also helps explain why, to me at least, the prayers at Remembrance Day ceremonies (which, as I wrote here, the Supreme Court may want to distinguish from the municipal council prayers) do not seem to raise the same concerns as legislative prayer. Remembrance Day prayers are, arguably, not for the benefit of politicians (who might have had little to do with their inclusion in the ceremonies), but of the members of the Canadian forces, the veterans, and their families. And even if some members of the public who attend the ceremony do not like the prayers, that cost, in that specific context, does not matter. We do not attend (or watch) these ceremonies for our own sake, but to pay respect to the veterans and the victims of the wars. It is their day, not ours, and our own feelings are very much secondary.

That is not true in the case of municipal council meetings, however. If politicians are public servants, as they claim to be, then what matters is their prayers’ benefits and costs to the public. Officeholders should not be able to hide between specious claims that prayers set the right tone for their partisan squabbles, otherwise known as deliberations, while in reality favouring their religious feelings, or constituents, at the expense of dissenters.

All Greek

On Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States delivered its judgment in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, finding constitutional the town’s practice of opening the monthly meetings of its board with a prayer read by a “chaplain of the month,” chosen from among the town’s religious congregations. I have blogged about this case here and here, because the issue it presented seems, at first glance anyway, very similar to that which the Supreme Court of Canada will have to decide in Mouvement Laïque Québécois v. City of Saguenay, which is also about a town opening its council meetings with a prayer. However, the decision of the Supreme Court of the U.S. is further proof of what I had already noted: the two cases are more different than they might seem, not only in their facts but also in the relevant precedents and legal traditions, so that there relatively few lessons to be drawn from one to the other.

Briefly, there are two main components two Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion in Town of Greece. One is an originalist or, perhaps more accurately, historicist argument to the effect that, because legislative prayer has always been a feature of American life, since the very first Congress, the same one which adopted the constitutional protections of religious freedom, paid a chaplain to open its sessions with prayer, these constitutional protections cannot be read to render such prayer impermissible. Indeed,

it is not necessary to define the precise boundary of the Establishment Clause where history shows that the specific practice is permitted. Any test the Court adopts must acknowledge a practice that was accepted by the Framers and has withstood the critical scrutiny of time and political change. (8)

The second component of Justice Kennedy’s opinion is his insistence that “non-establishment” of religion requires not the removal of religion, whether sectarian or generic, from the public sphere, but something like non-discriminatory access for different religious sects. Legislative prayers need not be generic; they can be as sectarian as the chaplains delivering them wish them to be, at least so long as they do systematically exclude or demean people of other faiths. Indeed, it would be impermissible for government (whether the Town’s authorities or a court) to police a chaplain’s words in order to expunge from them impermissible sectarianism. Short of systematic disparagement and exclusion, it is enough that the authorities inviting chaplains not unduly favour those of one religious group.

Justice Kagan’s dissent disputes not the majority’s general arguments, but its view of the practice in the case at bar. She too thinks that history justifies and validates legislative prayer. She too thinks that prayer need not be cleansed of sectarian elements. Unlike Justice Kennedy, she thinks that the Town’s almost unvarying choice of Christian chaplains amounted to an alignment of the Town with one religion, breaching the principle not so much of separation between church and state as of equality. With more diversity, including efforts to reach out to minority religious groups, the prayer would have been fine.

None of this will be very helpful to the Supreme Court of Canada when it considers the,  prayer in Saguenay. At the level of facts, Saguenay’s prayer practice is almost the opposite of that approved in Town of Greece. The text of Saguenay’s prayer is a purportedly ecumenical one, mandated by a municipal by-law, and it is read by the mayor himself. Despite a superficial inclusiveness (more apparent than real, since it excludes non-believers as well the adherents of non-monotheistic religions), it arguably entangles the municipality with religion to a greater extent than the invocations read by invited chaplains. As for reasoning, the American historicist approach is unlikely to be of much assistance to the Supreme Court of Canada, which has consistently rejected it in Charter cases.

The Supreme Court of Canada will thus need to craft its own approach to the issue of prayer before a municipal council. Although it is always best to try to learn from what our neighbours do, it is not always possible. In this case, the American approach cannot provide much, if any, useful guidance. It is, really, all Greek to us.

The Puzzle of Neutrality

While we are waiting for the conclusion of the greatest show on earth, a.k.a. as the Supreme Court’s hearings on the Senate reference, here are a couple of thoughts on an unrelated matter ― the case in which the Court has been asked to consider the validity under the Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms of Saguenay’s practice of opening its town council meetings with a prayer. The Québec Court of Appeal, in Saguenay (Ville de) c. Mouvement Laïque Québécois, 2013 QCCA 936, found that the prayer was not a violation of the complainants’ freedom of religion because it was not religious , and the complainants  have asked the Supreme Court for leave to appeal. In this post, I want to make a suggestion as to what the Supreme Court, should it grant leave, should consider in deciding the matter, and what it should not.

I have very harshly criticized the decision of the Québec Court of Appeal here, arguing that it was bad law and worse logic. Of course a prayer is religious, and so involves the state’s duty of neutrality in religious matters. The real question in this case is not whether we should, as the Court of Appeal, blind ourselves to that fact, but rather how far the duty of neutrality extends.

One example for the Supreme Court (as well as for all of us who think of these issues) to consider is the long-standing (I suppose) and uncontroversial (for all I know) practice of prayer at Remembrance Day ceremonies. At the ceremony in Ottawa (which, being out of the country and unable to attend one, I watched thanks to CBC’s live stream, for which I am very grateful), the prayer  is led by the Chaplain General of the Canadian Forces. It is an integral part of the ceremony. The prayer is certainly deistic and, arguably, noticeably though not overtly Christian (it appeals repeatedly to the “God of Mercy” and “God of Grace”, which I think are Christian concepts). 

And so here are some questions to ponder. Is this prayer a violation of the state’s duty of neutrality and/or of the citizens’ religious freedom? If yes, are courts really prepared to interfere with this practice? If this prayer does not violate the state’s neutrality, what, if anything, makes a town council prayer, or the prayer as it is implemented in Saguenay different? Does it matter that Saguenay’s the prayer is led by the mayor? (Put differently, would the answer for the Remembrance Day prayer be different if it were led by the Governor General?) Does it matter that the Remembrance Day ceremony is just that ― a ceremony, a merely symbolic event, however much importance some of us attach to it ― whereas town council meetings are not symbolic gatherings, and serve to make public decisions and enact public rules? Does the history of prayer at such events matter at all? (The Saguenay practice, it seems, is actually a recent one, although similar prayers have long existed in other assemblies in Canada.) For what little it’s worth, my intuition is that the town council prayer is rather more disturbing than the Remembrance Day one. But it’s not so easy to articulate just why that is ― which of course suggests that my intuition may well be wrong.

One place which, unfortunately, is unlikely to be of much help in thinking about these difficult questions is the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in Town of Greece v. Galloway, a case which also considers the constitutionality of prayer before a town council meeting. I was more optimistic when I first wrote about the coincidence of the two Supreme Courts considering this issue at the same time, but ― having just attended a lecture on Town of Greece at NYU ― I now have the impression that the differences of constitutional text and precedent between the US and Canada are, in this area, so important as to make reliance on American decisions quite unhelpful. Precedent, in the US, the case of  Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983), which upheld legislative prayer on the basis that it was a long-standing tradition that predated and was continued after the ratification of the Bill of Rights. That case, as Lyle Denniston writes, not only looms large over Town of Greece, but might indeed be the only ground on which a majority could agree to decide it. Yet its originalist logic has long been rejected by the Supreme Court of Canada, at least in cases about rights. Beyond precedent (and the peculiarities of the American constitutional text, which guarantees not a general “freedom of religion” like the Charter and other modern constitutions, but “free exercise” and non-establishment of religion), the parties’ positions are also very different. The plaintiffs in Town of Greece actually accept the permissibility of non-sectarian prayers, of the sort which are provided for by Saguenay’s policy, and indeed apparently take the position that the US Constitution simply does not protect atheists. Although, according to Mr. Denniston’s report, at least some judges seem ill at ease with that position, it probably means that the decision the Court will eventually deliver will respond to concerns quite different from those raised by the Saguenay case.

I hope that, unlike the Québec Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court ― as well as all of us thinking about this case ― will approach the American jurisprudence with caution. All the more important, then, to think carefully for ourselves about the very difficult questions about the extent of state neutrality in matters of religion, including those I have outlined above.

Danai Preces Legentes

Although courts in different countries are not infrequently called upon to consider similar issues, it is not very often that they do so at the exact same time. But that might be the case this year with the question the constitutionality of municipal councils opening their meetings with prayers. In Canada, the dispute concerns the prayers read by the mayor of Saguenay, which the Québec Court of Appeal upheld in Saguenay (Ville de) c. Mouvement Laïque Québécois, 2013 QCCA 936 ― as not being really prayers at all, but rather cultural manifestations. The respondents, who had challenged the prayer pursuant to Québec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, have applied to the Supreme Court of Canada for leave to appeal that ruling. And in the United States, the Supreme Court is set to consider the practice of a small city modestly called Greece of inviting local clergymen or citizens to read prayers at town council meetings, in Town of Greece v. Galloway. (SCOTUSblog’s inestimable Lyle Denison wrote about it here.)

The SCOTUSblog organized an online symposium about Town of Greece, which might be of interest to those thinking about the issue on either side of the border. Constitutional texts, traditions, and precedents differ (and indeed I think that relying on the American decision that is going to be the crucial precedent in Town of Greece, Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983) was one of the more egregious errors in the Québec Court of Appeal’s decision in Saguenay, because that decision employed an originalist logic that is entirely foreign to Canadian rights jurisprudence). There are differences between the relevant facts of Saguenay and Town of Greece too; in the former case, the prayer is non-denominational (supposedly anyway), but read by the mayor himself, while in the latter prayers are those of specific religious groups, but read by members of those groups, at the town council’s invitation, rather than by official representatives of the municipality. Nonetheless, some arguments of principle can cross borders easily enough, and apply to both situations.

Although they must be considered in light of each jurisdiction’s own constitutional text, precedent, and tradition, many of the questions the courts on both sides of the border must address are the same. What does it mean for the state not to take sides in religious controversies, or not to favour one group of believers over others? What is the degree of coercion that makes a governmental practice take sides? Does it matter that a prayer is sectarian or not? How to square ― in a principled way, one hopes ― the fact that religious manifestations and symbols are an ineradicable part of our heritage, whether the biblical references in Abraham Lincoln’s speeches or the crosses on the flags of Canadian provinces, with the modern commitment to the neutrality of the state? And, of course, what are the appropriate respective roles of courts and legislatures in answering these questions?

Those are not easy questions, though this does not mean that there are no clear answers to them. I continue to believe that prayer cannot be re-imagined as a cultural artifact similar perhaps to a biblical reference in a text; that even a non-denominational prayer favours some religious creeds over others (and of course over irreligion); and that official prayers are coercive, even if those who wish not to take part in them are permitted to leave the room where they take place. In my view, which I explained in more detail here, the Québec Court of Appeal’s decision in Saguenay was an aberration. As I said then, this mess deserves a big benchslap. I hope that the Supreme Court of Canada takes the case and delivers one; and that, in the process, it gives us an interesting occasion for comparing our constitutional jurisprudence with that of our neighbours.

Ceci n’est pas une prière

Le dictionnaire Larousse définit le mot « prière » comme un « [a]cte rituel par lequel on s’adresse à une divinité ou à ses intercesseurs », ou encore comme un « [e]nsemble de formules, en général codifiées, par lesquelles on s’adresse à Dieu ». La Cour d’appel du Québec, elle, a une autre vision des choses. Une prière, nous apprend-elle dans un jugement sorti lundi, Saguenay (Ville de) c. Mouvement Laïque Québécois, 2013 QCCA 936, ça n’a rien à voir avec la religion.

Le litige qui a mené à ce jugement opposait un citoyen de Saguenay, Gilles Simoneau, au maire de la ville, Jean Tremblay, qui ouvre chaque séance du conseil municipal en lisant une prière. D’abord une pratique informelle, la prière est, depuis 2008, encadrée par un règlement municipal. Son texte se veut non-confessionnel, invoquant un « Dieu tout puissant » générique. Le maire Tremblay, cependant, accompagne toujours sa prière de signes de croix. Le règlement prévoit également que la séance du conseil municipal ne commence que deux minutes après la fin de la prière, question de permettre à ceux qui désirent quitter la salle pour ne pas y assister de regagner leur place.

M. Simoneau et le Mouvement laïque québécois (MLQ) se sont adressés au Tribunal des droits de la personne du Québec, alléguant notamment que la prière étant une violation du devoir de neutralité des autorités municipales et, partant, de la liberté de religion et du droit à l’égalité de M. Simoneau protégés par la Charte (québécoise) des droits et libertés de la personne. Fait à noter, ils n’ont pas contesté la constitutionnalité du règlement qui encadre la prière. Le Tribunal leur a donné raison, et la municipalité et le maire ont fait appel.

(La plainte de M. Simoneau et du MLQ concernait aussi la présence de signes religieux dans les salles où se réunit le conseil municipal. La Cour conclut que le Tribunal des droits de la personne n’avait pas compétence pour se prononcer là-dessus, et je n’en parlerai pas davantage, pour ne pas alourdir un billet de toute façon beaucoup trop long.)

Les motifs de la Cour d’appel sur la question de la prière sont unanimes. La Cour écarte tout d’abord la preuve d’expert sur laquelle s’est largement appuyé le Tribunal des droits de la personne, statuant que l’expert de M. Simoneau et du MLQ a manqué d’impartialité, étant à l’époque un vice-président du MLQ et ayant affiché des positions extrêmement tranchées sur les questions de la la laïcité. La Cour choisit plutôt de s’appuyer sur l’expertise présentée par les appelants.

Quant au fond de la cause, la Cour statue que la prière ne porte pas atteinte aux droits de M. Simoneau. La neutralité religieuse de l’État n’exige pas, selon elle, l’évacuation de toute manifestation religieuse de l’espace public, du moins lorsque la manifestation religieuse en question est aussi une forme d’héritage culturel, que l’État se doit de protéger. Car ce qui était autrefois manifestement religieux et confessionnel peut être devenu aujourd’hui une partie de notre paysage culturel, symbolique (telle la croix sur le drapeau du Québec) ou même du paysage au sens littéral (telle la croix du Mont-Royal).

Certes, l’État ne doit pas imposer une conviction religieuse aux citoyens. Cependant, « les changements sociaux [tels que la séparation progressive de l’Église et de l’État] s’étudient dans le respect des valeurs et de la tradition politique de la société dans laquelle ils surviennent » (par. 66). Si documents constitutionnels et quasi-constitutionnels sont des « arbres vivants », c’est qu’ils ont des racines historiques et culturelles dont on ne saurait les couper. « En ce sens, la neutralité absolue de l’État ne […] semble pas envisageable d’un point de vue constitutionnel » (par. 68), pas plus que la « laïcité intégrale ».

Selon la Cour, qui s’appuie largement sur l’interprétation proposée par les experts des appelants (et qui rejette celle à la fois des intimés et du maire Tremblay lui-même) la prière que prononce le maire est une manifestation essentiellement culturelle.

[L]es valeurs exprimées par la prière litigieuse sont universelles et qu’elles ne s’identifient à aucune religion en particulier. … [C]ette prière est conforme à une doctrine théiste moderne, ouverte à certains particularismes religieux non envahissants et raisonnables.

Elle est aussi similaire à la prière prononcée à l’ouverture des séances de la Chambre des communes et celle d’un conseil municipal ontarien approuvée par la Cour supérieure de l’Ontario dans Allen v. Renfrew (Corp. of the County), 69 OR (3d) 742; 117 CRR (2d) 280. La Cour conclut qu’

[u]ne personne raisonnable, bien renseignée et consciente des valeurs implicites qui sous-tendent ce concept ne pourrait en l’espèce accepter l’idée que l’activité étatique de la Ville, du fait de cette prière, était sous une influence religieuse particulière.

Dans une sorte d’obiter, la Cour n’en déplore pas moins « l’attitude du maire de la Ville appelante à l’égard de la prière et de ses déclarations publiques intempestives concernant sa foi » (par. 147), notamment le fait qu’il accompagne sa prière d’un signe de croix qui, contrairement au texte de la prière, est manifestement confessionnel, et « qui remet en cause, du moins en apparence, la neutralité religieuse de la Ville et de celle de ses représentants » (par. 150).


Ce n’est pas le seul à qui on peut faire des reproches. Les demandeurs (ou leurs avocats) ont mal organisé leur contestation, notamment en omettant de contester la constitutionnalité du règlement encadrant la prière et en retenant les services d’un expert potentiellement biaisé (et aux qualifications académiques modestes). Mais, surtout, c’est la Cour elle-même qui paraît mal dans cette affaire. Son jugement est très faible, tant sur le plan de la technique juridique qu’au niveau des principes.

Au niveau de la technique, le traitement de la preuve par la Cour ― son rejet de l’expertise présentée par les intimés, sur laquelle s’était appuyé le tribunal des droits de la personne, et son acceptation des prétentions des experts des appelants ― me paraît très douteux. Un tribunal qui siège en révision judiciaire ne peut normalement ré-évaluer la preuve de cette façon. Certes c’est la norme de contrôle de la décision correcte qui s’appliquait aux questions juridiques en cause, mais l’appréciation de la preuve relève néanmoins du tribunal administratif, en l’occurrence le Tribunal des droits de la personne. Sa décision ne peut être écartée que si elle est déraisonnable, et la Cour, selon moi, ne démontre pas qu’elle l’est, du moins en ce qui concerne l’expertise des appelants. Cette expertise souffre d’ailleurs d’un sérieux problème que la Cour passe sous silence, en ce que les passages cités dans le jugement me semblent proposer des conclusions juridiques (quant à la conformité de la prière à la Charte) qu’un expert doit se garder de formuler, puisqu’il s’agit du domaine réservé au juge.

Ce qui est plus grave, toutefois, c’est que le jugement ne discute ni de l’arrêt de principe de la Cour suprême sur la liberté de religion en général et la neutralité de l’État en particulier, R. c. Big M Drug Mart Ltd., [1985] 1 R.C.S. 295 ni d’un important arrêt de la Cour d’appel de l’Ontario sur la question de la prière dans les écoles, Zylberberg v. Sudbury Board of Education, 65 OR (2d) 641; 52 DLR (4th) 577. (Il est, selon moi, remarquable, et déplorable, que les intimés n’aient pas fait allusion à cet arrêt dans leur mémoire. Du mauvais travail des avocats ― ce qui n’excuse pas pour autant le silence de la Cour.) La Cour s’appuie aussi sur des jugements concordants et des obiters dans d’autres arrêts, sans pour autant discuter des éléments essentiels de cette jurisprudence (c’est le cas, notamment, de l’arrêt Freitag v. Penetanguishene (Town), 47 OR (3d) 301; 179 DLR (4th) 150.

Or, une réflexion sur la portée de cette jurisprudence aurait permis à la Cour de mieux apprécier les principes en cause. De se rappeler que, comme le dit la Cour suprême dans Big M, et comme le rappelle la Cour d’appel de l’Ontario dans Freitag, une atteinte à la liberté religieuse (ou à tout autre droit) peut résulter non seulement de l’effet, mais aussi de l’objectif d’une mesure gouvernementale, si bien que les intentions manifestement religieuses du maire Tremblay sont pertinentes et même décisives dans ce litige. De se rappeler aussi, comme dit toujours la Cour suprême dans Big M, que l’objectif d’une mesure gouvernementale ne peut pas changer ― une mesure adoptée pour des motifs religieux demeure religieuse. De comprendre que, comme le souligne la Cour d’appel de l’Ontario dans Zylberberg, une prière récitée par les représentants de l’État impose bel et bien la croyance à des non-croyants, et qu’avoir à quitter une salle où un représentant de l’État prie dans l’exercice de ses fonctions, c’est être contraint à manifester son incroyance. De réaliser que, comme l’a rappelé la Cour d’appel de l’Ontario dans Zylberberg et Freitag, l’histoire, la tradition, n’est pas une justification adéquate en droit constitutionnel canadien, et que même les pratiques historiquement ancrées doivent être évaluées à la lumière d’une compréhension moderne des principes en cause. (À cet égard, le fait que la Cour s’appuie sur une décision de la Cour suprême des États-Unis justifiant la constitutionnalité d’une prière dans une assemblée législative par la compréhension de la liberté religieuse qui prévalait en 1787 est choquant. Cette approche a systématiquement été rejetée en droit canadien.)

Il ne s’agit pas pour autant d’évacuer la religion de l’espace public au nom d’une supposée « laïcité intégrale ». Il n’est certes pas question de retirer la croix du drapeau du Québec (ou de celui de six autres provinces canadiennes). Cependant, entre un drapeau qui est véritablement l’artefact du passé et une prière renouvelée chaque jour il y a toute une différence. J’ai soutenu, l’an dernier, que la neutralité de l’État n’exigeait pas qu’on force les fonctionnaires à cacher leur appartenance religieuse. Or, ce n’est pas de cela qu’il s’agit. Le maire Tremblay est effectivement libre de se proclamer chrétien sur la place publique. Il ne s’ensuit pas qu’il l’est d’invoquer Dieu dans l’exercice de ses fonctions (voir, à ce sujet, Freitag, au par. 12), pas plus que, disons, une juge, si elle est libre de porter le hijab, ne l’est de dire à un justiciable qu’elle rend justice au nom d’Allah.

Au delà, cependant, des principes juridiques et philosophiques, la décision de la Cour défie la langue française et la logique. Prétendre qu’une prière invoquant « Dieu tout puissant » n’est pas un acte religieux qui va directement à l’encontre de la neutralité de l’État, alors que même les experts des appelants la décrivent comme « théiste », c’est surréaliste, idiot ou hypocrite.

Il ne reste qu’à espérer une intervention de la Cour suprême dans ce dossier. (Je ne sais pas, cependant, si M. Simoneau et le MLQ ont l’intention de s’adresser à elle.) Ce gâchis mérite un gros benchslap.