Shouting into the Constitutional Void

Section 28 of the Canadian Charter and Québec’s Bill 21

By Kerri A. Froc*

“And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil. Aphorism 146)

For several years now, I have been arguing that section 28 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is more than a symbolic flourish, more than just emphasis for section 15’s sex equality guarantee, and more than an interpretive provision.  In fact, it has its own independent work to do.  This includes blocking attempts by government to use section 33 to preserve gender inequality. 

I did not make up this interpretation of section 28.  Rather, it is part of section 28’s text and history and is uncontroversial amongst those who have studied the matter.  That is why I am not only perplexed, but annoyed, at section 28 seemingly being ignored in the debate over the constitutionality of Bill 21’s requirement that certain government employees (including school teachers, police, Crown prosecutors and judges) do not wear religious symbols at work (section 6).  It is in fact reminiscent of the way that women’s rights were ignored in 1981 constitutional negotiations, which galvanized women to insist upon section 28 in the first place.  Below, I discuss section 28’s interpretation vis a vis section 33, and then how it would be pled in a constitutional challenge to Bill 21.


Section 28 beginning phrase reads: “Notwithstanding anything in this Charter.”  This meant its guarantee of equal rights is not to be derogated by other provisions of the Charter. Provincial and federal bureaucrats attempted after the November 1981 “Kitchen Accord” to subject section 28 to section 33.  They drafted amendments to section 28 and section 33, notionally to “implement” the terms of the Accord (though first ministers never discussed section 28).  The opening words of Section 28 would have been revised to read, “Notwithstanding anything in this Charter except section 33,” and section 33 would have been amended to end with, “or section 28 of this Charter in its application to discrimination based on sex referred to in section 15.”  These proposed additions were scrubbed from the Charter’s final text through the hard work of feminist advocates, women MPs from all parties, and, to put it bluntly, a groundswell of pissed off women from across the country.  This history, however, merely confirms that “notwithstanding anything” means what it plainly says.

In their 1984 book, Canada Notwithstanding, Roy Romanow, John Whyte and Howard Leeson (all members of the November 1981 Saskatchewan constitutional delegation) confirmed that the removal of the application of section 33 from section 28 “in effect…meant that sexual equality in section 15 could not be overridden.”  Justice Carole Julien, in a 2004 Charter case involving pay equity, Syndicat de la fonction publique c. Procureur général du Québec,had occasion to discuss the legal effect of section 28.  She noted that the predominant scholarly opinion was that the override did not apply to section 28 “due to the historical context of its adoption and its objectives” (my translation).  It is unfortunate that this judgment was merely a passing footnote in the recent Supreme Court decision, Centrale des syndicats du Québec v. Quebec (Attorney General).


How would it potentially play out if litigants argued section 28 in relation to the Bill 21 constitutional challenge?  There are potentially two Charter claims that could be advanced by women who are adversely affected by section 6.  The first is that it discriminates against them on the basis of sex, contrary to section 15(1).  The second is that section 6 violates their freedom of religion disproportionately, so that women are unable to exercise this freedom on an equal basis with men.  Sex discrimination is contrary to Charter section 15(1) and 28; a gender-disproportionate violation of religious freedom would be contrary to sections 2(a) and 28.  Section 28 is involved in both claims as section 6 results in unequal rights afforded to men and women.   A section 28 violation cannot be preserved using section 33.

One could also use an alternative legal argument in relation to section 15.  Quebec could argue that a general sex equality violation, in and of itself, does not implicate section 28 (saying that section 28 does not really “add” anything to the section 15 determination).  However, if additional state action is taken to attempt to preserve a section 15 sex equality violation by invoking section 33, section 28 operates to block the effect of that invocation.  Taking action to preserve women’s section 15 rights violation results in unequal rights contrary to section 28.  This is quite applicable to Bill 21, in that section 30 contains a pre-emptive declaration that the Act operates notwithstanding sections 2 and 7-15 of the Charter. 

Regardless of which argument(s) you accept, the validity of section 6 cannot be maintained by the section 33 override because doing would mean section 28 is made subject to the legal effect of section 33.


A question I am sometimes asked is: where is the gender inequality in Bill 21?  Many media sources have indicates that the group most affected are Muslim women wearing the head scarf (hijab), but do not indicate the sources they rely upon for that fact.  I’ve done some of my own data crunching to provide initial support for that point. 

Of the groups mentioned, Muslims are in vastly greater numbers in Québec than both Jews and Sikhs (men from these two other groups have been mentioned as being the others affected by the law).  For the last year in which we have data (2011), there were nearly two and a half times as many Muslims in Quebec as Jews and Sikhs together. Approximately 53%, of Muslim women in Canada wear the hijab.  Quebec’s public service is still massively dominated by white francophones; however, nearly half of its workers are female (amongst school teachers, one of the largest groups affected by Bill 21, that percentage is much higher). It stands to reason given these statistics that most of those affected are Muslim women.  While some judges may not consider these statistics more than a “web of instinct”, this data could be supplemented by access to information requests and litigation disclosure to obtain numbers of affected employees.  Further, one could argue that the state demanding women remove clothing has a more threatening import and communicates a sex-specific devaluation, given the way women’ attire has been regulated and judged by law throughout history.  Thus one could argue that the qualitative impact constitutes a sex-based distinction in itself. 

Even apart from disparate impact, if the purpose of a law is discriminatory or is to privilege certain religious beliefs, then that would be a violation of section 15(1) and section 2(a) respectively.  A good case could be made that Bill 21 targets Muslim women based, for instance, on the Quebec Minister for the Status of Women’s comments.  Concerning the privileging of religious beliefs, it is worth noting that symbols of Quebec’s “religious cultural heritage” (read: Christianity/Catholicism) are specifically exempted from all of Bill 21’s provisions by section 16. 

Of course, there are potentially other elements in relation to a Charter analysis that would have to be successfully argued, such as showing “disadvantage” for section 15(1) and more than atrivial infringement of religious freedom, for section 2(a).  However, I do not regard those as posing much of an impediment. 


Why should we care if civil liberties associations, lawyers, and courts ignore section 28 in the upcoming constitutional battle over Bill 21?  To paraphrase Nietzsche, if we gaze into the Constitution and see only an abyss when it comes to section 28, we should not be surprised if the abyss gazes back in the form of more constitutional provisions courts feel secure in being able to ignore into desuetude.  Simply put, entrenched constitutional text should and does count more than implied bills of rights, unwritten principles, constitutional architecture and the like.  If not section 28 in this case, then when?


* Kerri A. Froc is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Law, University of New Brunswick. Follow her on Twitter!

On the Origin of Rights

Are religious justifications for rights and equality inadmissible in Canadian politics?

Why have we got the fundamental rights we think we have? This is a somewhat embarrassing question for secular liberals, such as yours truly. We don’t have a very satisfactory answer to it. Our religious fellow-citizens, by contrast, have one, which is that rights come from God, in whose image (at least the Judeo-Christian tradition) human beings have been created. As it turns out, however, not everyone is okay with this answer being publicly aired, at least by a politician. This is puzzling to me, and worth a response.

The minor Twitter dustup of the week so far was triggered by the Conservative Party’s leader, Andrew Scheer, who wanted us all to know that he “believe[s] that we are all children of God and there is equal and infinite value in all of us”, from which it follows that no one is superior or inferior to anyone else on the basis of “race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation”. Pretty anodyne stuff, I should have thought. But not according to, well, a number of people ― one can never tell how many with these Twitter dustups. Emmett Macfarlane demanded that Mr. Scheer “[k]eep his imaginary shit out of [his] public policy”, eventually adding that”[i]t’s actually highly disagreeable to imply … that the equality of people is rooted in our status as ‘children of God'”. And I’ve seen other comments along these lines too. Perhaps, as Jonathan Kay suggested, “Canada has run out of real things to fight about”. But I take it that to Professor Macfarlane, and to others who think like him, this is a serious thing.


So here are some hopefully serious thoughts on this, from the perspective of one who does not share Mr. Scheer’s belief that human beings are children of God. To begin with, it’s necessary to recall that something like Mr. Scheer’s view was, historically, the foundation of the argument for the normative equality of human beings and the existence of fundamental rights inviolable by a political community. It was John Locke’s argument and Thomas Jefferson’s, for instance. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed, as “self-evident” “truths”, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Lord Acton would later write that “the equal claim of every man to be unhindered by man in the fulfillment of duty to God … is the secret essence of the Rights of Man”.

A Twitter interlocutor told me that this was of no import in Canada. Stuff and nonsense. Canada is very much an heir to the liberal tradition of which both Locke and Jefferson were among the founders, and Acton one of the great exponents. (The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, in particular, embodies this tradition ― and, in permitting individual rights to be set up as limits on public power, does so in a manner that is more Jeffersonian than the defenders of Canadian exceptionalism care to acknowledge.) Others have pointed out that Locke’s egalitarianism did not extend to the Aboriginal peoples of the New World. They might have added that Jefferson was, notoriously, a slave-owner who fathered children with an enslaved woman. Acton almost as notoriously, supported the slave-owners in the American Civil War, in a shockingly misguided and embarrassing defence of federalism. But I don’t think this matters here. Locke, Jefferson, and Acton fell short of their principles ― as human beings often do ― and this is to their individual discredit, but not to that of the principles which, had they followed these principles fully, would have prevented them from discrediting themselves.

More modern, secular statements about the origin of rights, meanwhile, are full of elisions and circumlocution. Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that “[a]ll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” This is, up to a point, an echo of Jefferson’s words, but notice what’s missing here: any indication of why human beings are born free and equal, or how we know this, or who endowed them with reason and conscience. Section 1 of the Canadian Bill of Rights “recognized and declared that in Canada there have existed and shall continue to exist … [certain] human rights and fundamental freedoms”. This (like similar, if more laconic, language in section 2 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990) is a recognition of the pre-political nature of rights, which are not created by whatever positive law implements them. But again, it is not clear how these pre-political rights came into being. The preamble to the Canadian Bill of Rights declares that “the Canadian Nation is founded upon principles that acknowledge the supremacy of God, the dignity and worth of the human person and the position of the family in a society of free men and free institutions”. The preamble to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms also refers to “principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law”. But the connection between these principles and the rights these instruments protect is left studiously undefined.

I am not saying that this is a bad thing. It’s probably more important to agree on our having rights than on the causes of our having rights. I share A.V. Dicey’s belief that it is more important to provide legal remedies for the violations of rights than to declare grand principles of rights-protection. Jefferson could consider the divine origin of rights self-evident, but in contemporary society neither his view nor any alternative can make such claims, and it is fortunate that we have gotten on with the practical business of providing legal remedies against the breaches of at least some important rights instead of debating the precise metaphysical reasons why we should do so.

It would be a long debate. We secularists cannot claim to know, collectively, where rights or equality come from. Some of us, individually, have hypotheses of course. There is Kant’s work on human dignity of course (arguably as mysterious as many a religious dogma). Jeremy Waldron (although he is no secularist, actually, as will soon be apparent), sets out a (multifaceted) justification for equality in his book One Another’s Equals. Another line of thought that I personally find appealing is based (non-religious) natural law, developed along the lines Randy Barnett sketches out. In a nutshell, this argument holds that, given certain facts about human nature ― perhaps especially our general tendency, all too well attested by history, to disregard the interests of those whom we do not consider to be (at least) our equals ― if we want to live peacefully and prosperously with one another, we really ought to consider each other as equals and as holders of certain rights. Intriguingly, the preamble of the Universal Declaration actually makes an argument of more or less this sort: “[w]hereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”. In other words, if we don’t commit to ideas like equality and some other fundamental rights, we can be pretty sure that things will turn out badly.

But none of that is, to use Jefferson’s words, self-evident. One can plausibly be a Kantian, a secular Waldronian, a latter-day natural lawyer, but one cannot plausibly insist that these explanations, or any one of them, are the only admissible ones. Nor can one specifically exclude religious explanations for equality or fundamental rights from the realm of admissibility. (That’s not to say one has to find them persuasive.) Professor Waldron himself writes that it “seem[s] obvious to [him]” that

an adequate conception of human dignity and of the equality that is predicated on that dignity is rooted in an understanding of the relation of the human person to God or in aspects of human nature that matter to God or matter for our relation to God[;] that human worth and human dignity are going to have to be rooted in something like a theological anthropology, a religiously loaded account of human nature. (177)

Professor Waldron acknowledges that these things are not obvious ― to put it mildly ― to many others; that “[m]any philosophers” ― or political scientists, like Professor Macfarlane, or others ― “are inclined to dismiss religious accounts of human equality as superstitious nonsense”. (178) He specifically addresses the concerns of those who would rather that religious arguments on such issues not be offered to the public. As read him, Professor Waldron speaks mostly to the position of the philosopher (not necessarily a professional one, but perhaps simply a philosophically-minded citizen), not that of the aspiring office-holder. But I think that his conclusion that “everybody calling it as they see it and giving the fullest and most honest account they can is superior to … embarrassed self-censorship about a matter this important” (213) is applicable to people in Mr. Scheer’s position, as well as in Professor Waldron’s. This is partly a matter of honesty both personal and intellectual, and partly also a consequence of the fact that, as noted above, for politics and law, our agreement on the existence of rights and the value of equality matters rather more than the reasons we might have for subscribing to this agreement. If some people want to sign on for religious reasons, we should welcome them and be glad of their company even if we do not find their reasons convincing.


So, despite not being religious, I would not purge the religious accounts of equality and fundamental rights from the realm of intellectually respectable ideas or from the public square. Indeed, I will end on a on wistful and worried note. Professor Waldron suggests that “perhaps some of the foundations” of our morality “have [a] nonnegotiable character;” (188) they must be obeyed and are not subject to revision in light of our other commitments. These foundations “may include the basic equality of all human beings, and I wonder whether a religious grounding might not be a good way of characterizing this particularly strenuous form of objective resilience”. (188) Perhaps the same might be said about liberty, or its more specific instantiations, such as the freedom of conscience and the freedom of speech.

And so, like Professor Waldron, I wonder whether a world, call it Jefferson’s world if you like, in which there was certainty about the origin of rights ― and about their divine origin, and hence transcendant importance, too ― was not one in which rights could be more secure than in our world of pluralist doubt. Against that, we must count the reality of, on the whole, much greater respect for rights today than in Jefferson’s own time and in his own life. Still, it is difficult not to worry that our lack of confidence about the origin of rights leaves them vulnerable to the rhetoric of those who see rights (and other legal and constitutional limitations) as dispensable luxuries or outright obstacles in their pursuit of plans for remodelling human beings, society, and the world in the name of this or that ideal.

Is Québec’s Dress Code Unconstitutional?

There is a serious argument to be made that Québec’s ban on religious symbols infringes the federal division of powers

Back when a previous Québec government sought to impose a dress-code on the province’s employees, I suggested here and here that, should the province seek to insulate its legislation from review based on its manifest violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Québec’s own Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms by invoking these Charters’ respective “notwithstanding clauses”, the question of constitutionality could still be raised. That is because such legislation may well infringe not only the constitutional guarantees of religious liberty, but also the federal division of powers, to which the “notwithstanding clauses” do not apply. 

The idea of a dress code for (some) public employees is back, in the shape of a bizarrely named Bill 21, An Act respecting the laicity of the State. (Pro tip for the legislative draughtsman: “laicity” is not a synonym of “secularism”.) And as Bill 21 invokes the “notwithstanding clauses”, the issue of its consistency with the federal division of powers must be addressed.


Fortunately, Maxime St-Hilaire has posted a thorough review (en français) of the relevant case law over at À qui de droit. With his kind permission, a (very slightly shortened and re-formatted) translation follows:

Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in no way allows Parliament or a legislature to suspend the federal division of legislative powers. Only the federal emergency power makes it possible to do this, temporarily.

Recall that, in 1852, before Confederation, the legislature of the United Province of Canada enacted a Freedom of Worship Act. In 1867, the protection of religious freedom was not, as such, assigned to either Parliament or the legislatures. The Freedom of Worship Act remains purportedly valid as a law of Québec.

However, in Saumur v City of Quebec, [1953] 2 SCR 299, which involved a by-law subjecting the distribution of any literature in the city’s streets to the approval of the chief of police, four of the nine judges took the position that religious freedom was outside the scope of provincial jurisdiction, and within that of Parliament. In somewhat different ways, the four took the position that, being a restriction on freedom of religion, the by-law could not be justified as an exercise of the provincial power over “Property and Civil Rights in the Province” provided by section 92(13) of the Constitution Act, 1867, or that over “Municipal Institutions in the Province”, or any other provincial power, including that over “Matters of a merely local or private Nature in the Province”, provided by section 92(16). Rather, religious freedom was a matter within the scope either of the federal criminal law power (section 91(27)), or of the section 91 residual federal power over “Peace, Order, and Good Government of Canada”. Two other judges were content to raise this argument without either endorsing or rejecting it: “It may well be that Parliament alone has power to make laws in relation to the subject of religion as such”. (387; per Cartwright J). Only three of the nine judges took the position that freedom of religion fell within the scope of the provincial power over “Property and Civil Rights” or, perhaps, “Matters of a merely local or private Nature”.

Saumur was ultimately decided on the basis of the by-law’s interpretation, rather than its validity. Two years later, in Henry Birks & Sons (Montreal) Ltd v City of Montreal, [1955] SCR 799, the Supreme Court unanimously held that a Québec statute specifically allowing municipalities to prohibit the opening of shops on designated Catholic holidays was ultra vires the province, because in pith and substance it was colourable criminal law. Justice Kellock (with the agreement of Justice Locke), went so far as to suggest that 

[e]ven if it could be said that legislation of the character here in question is not properly “criminal law” within the meaning of s. 91(27), it would, in my opinion, still be beyond the jurisdiction of a provincial legislature as being legislation with respect to freedom of religion dealt with by the [Freedom of Worship Act]. (823)

This was also the view of Justice Rand, for whom “legislation in relation to religion the provision is beyond provincial authority to enact”. (814)

In Dupond v City of Montreal, [1978] 2 SCR 770, Justice Beetz, for the majority, argues that the freedom of religion belongs partly to the federal criminal law power, so far as the imposition of religious observance is concerned, and partly a matter of provincial competence over purely local matters (similarly to the “freedoms of speech [and] of the press”). (796-97)

This was confirmed in R v Big M Drug Mart, [1985] 1 SCR 295, where Justice Dickson, for the majority, held that

Parliament’s legislative competence to enact the Lord’s Day Act depends on the identification of the purpose of the Act as compel­ling observance of Sunday by virtue of its religious significance. Were its purpose not religious but rather the secular goal of enforcing a uniform day of rest from labour, the Act would come under s. 92(13), property and civil rights in the province and, hence, fall under provincial rather than federal competence. (354)

Since the freedom of religion includes the freedom of conscience, and thus the freedom not to believe, it is tempting to argue that any law that imposes either a form of religious belief or non-belief falls under Parliament’s exclusive power over criminal law. However, as explained in Reference re Assisted Human Reproduction Act2010 SCC 61, [2010] 3 SCR 457, to belong to the realm of criminal law, a law must “suppress an evil, … establish a prohibition, and … accompany that prohibition with a penalty”. [233]

However, it seems settled that both Parliament and the legislatures are able to protect or to justifiably limit, within the meaning of section 1 of the Charter, the freedom of conscience and religion, through the use of their ancillary powers. The power over religion is thus a shared one within the federal division of powers. The Supreme Court has confirmed this, for example in R v Edwards Books and Art Ltd, [1986] 2 SCR 713. Justice Dickson, uncontradicted on this point, expressed the following view:

[T]here exist religious matters which must similarly fall within provincial competence. … It would seem, therefore, that the Constitution does not contemplate religion as a discrete constitutional “matter” falling exclusively within either a federal or provincial class of subjects. Legislation concerning religion or religious freedom ought to be characterized, I believe, in light of its context, according to the particular religious matter upon which the legislation is focussed. … 

Applying the above principles to the appeals at bar, it is, in my opinion, open to a provincial legislature to attempt to neutralize or minimize the adverse effects of otherwise valid provincial legislation on human rights such as freedom of religion. (750-51)

There is nothing impossible about a Québec statute on secularism enacted notwithstanding the Charter being held invalid as a violation of the federal division of powers. The outcome will depend largely on the evidence and arguments related to the (real) purpose of the law. If those challenging the law were able to persuade the court that the purpose of (and not only the means taken by) the statute is religious in the legal, that is to say broad, sense of the term, and restrictive, the court could strike it down in whole or in part, notwithstanding its use of the notwithstanding clause.


I would only add a few comments. To begin with, following up on Professor St-Hilaire’s conclusion, it is important to note (as I already did in my original posts) that what might, to some, feel like a runaround to avoid the effects of the invocation of section 33 of the Canadian Charter is nothing of the sort. Some runarounds have been proposed in the last couple of days, for example by Louis-Philippe Lampron and Pierre Bosset, who suggest that unwritten constitutional principles can be invoked to impose limits on the legislature’s ability to invoke section 33. This is just not plausible. In British Columbia v Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd2005 SCC 49, [2005] 2 SCR 473, the Supreme Court made it clear unwritten principles cannot be used to make up perceived shortcomings in the scope of the Charter’s protections. This logic must apply to the “notwithstanding clause” as much as to the gaps in the Charter‘s substantive rights. By contrast, however, the limits on a provincial legislature’s legislative power that pre-existed the Charter remain intact and enforceable. Section 31 of the Charter itself tells us as much. It provides that “[n]othing in this Charter extends the legislative powers of any body or authority.” 

Next, I would argue that the purpose of Bill 21 is quite clearly religious, or rather anti-religious. These two things, as Professor St-Hilaire points out, are equivalent for constitutional purposes. The bill’s preamble proclaims that “it is incumbent on the Parliament of Québec to determine the principles according to which and manner in which relations between the State and religions are to be governed in Québec” and that “it is important that the paramountcy of State laicity be enshrined in Québec’s legal order”. Clause 1 provides that “The State of Québec is a lay State”. (Pro tip for the legislative draughtsman: “lay” is not a synonym of “secular”; this is another calque, just like “laicity”.) Clause 2 sets out “principles” on which “[t]he laicity [sic] of the State is based”, including “the separation of State and religions” and, supposedly, “the religious neutrality of the State”. (This is a rather transparent lie, since the bill would exclude religious individuals from a variety of functions within the purportedly neutral state.) And Bill 21’s centrepiece is, of course, Clause 6, which provides that various public employees and some contractors “are prohibited from wearing religious symbols in the exercise of their functions”. Only “religious symbols” ― not political ones, or those that have to do with any other aspect of people’s identities ― are targeted. This is a regulation of religion, and nothing else.

Consider, then, the arguments that the Québec government might make in defence of its legislation. The authority for it, if it exists at all, presumably comes from section 45 of the Constitution Act, 1982, or section 92(4) of the Constitution Act, 1867. The former provides that, subject to limitations that are not relevant here, “the legislature of each province may exclusively make laws amending the constitution of the province”. The latter grants the provinces power over “The Establishment and Tenure of Provincial Offices and the Appointment and Payment of Provincial Officers”. The scope of section 45’s predecessor provision, section 92(1) of the Constitution Act, 1867, was explained by Justice Beetz in his majority reasons in Ontario (Attorney General) v OPSEU, [1987] 2 SCR 2. To determine whether an enactment qualifies as an amendment to the constitution of the province, one must first ask:

is the enactment in question, by its object, relative to a branch of the government of Ontario … ? Does it for instance determine the composition, powers, authority, privileges and duties of the legislative or of the executive branches or their members? Does it regulate the interrelationship between two or more branches? Or does it set out some principle of government? (39)

However, even if the answer to this first question (or set of questions) is in the affirmative, one must keep in mind the restrictions on the provinces’ legislative authority imposed by the federal division of powers, and other limits imposed by the constitution of Canada as a whole. One can certainly argue that Bill 21 imposes duties on members of the three branches of Québec’s government, and sets out a “principle of government”. But if its true purpose is not so much to regulate the functioning of the provincial government as to compel religious non-observance, then it is still not valid legislation amending the provincial constitution. And I would add that, although the government might claim that it is not trying to prevent anyone from being religious outside of their working hours, religiosity is not something that can be switched off from 9AM to 5PM and then back on again. 

Indeed, Justice Beetz’s comments in OPSEU on section 92(4) are suggestive here. Justice Beetz wrote that limitations on civil servants’ political activity at both the federal and the provincial level “constitute a term or condition of tenure of provincial office, enforced by compulsory resignation or dismissal. Their object is to ensure in this respect, not partial virtue, but global political independence for provincial officers.” (48) One can certainly say that Bill 21’s limitations on religious expression are a term or condition of tenure of provincial office. But if the government argues that their object is to ensure not partial, but global irreligion on the part of its employees, then the proposition that Bill 21 is not aimed at banning religious observance should be a tough sell.


Quite apart from constitutional issues, Bill 21 is a disaster from the standpoint of political morality. It is a massive violation of religious liberty of those who already are, or might in the future like to become, employed by the Québec government or hold provincial office. While less discriminatory on its face than Québec’s previous attempts at a dress code, in that it purports to ban all religious symbols and not just “ostentatious” ones (i.e. the hijab, the kippah, and the turban, but not the cross worn by Catholics, lapsed or otherwise, who constitute the majority of Québec’s population), it still transparently invites discrimination. It seems unlikely, to say the least, that anyone will be looking for crosses under civil servants’ shirts. Hijabs, kippahs, and turbans, on the other hand… But the constitution, despite the Québec government’s attempt to shove it aside, might yet stand in the way of this iniquity.

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.

Quand on se compare

Les traditions tant française qu’américaine de laïcité sont moins monolithiques qu’on ne l’a parfois prétendu. Reste qu’imposer la « neutralité » aux individus est injustifié.

Dans le débat entourant la Charte de la honte que le Parti Québécois proposait il y a un an, on a beaucoup invoqué les traditions française et américaine de la laïcité. La première, a-t-on prétendu, surtout chez les partisans de la Charte de la honte, justifierait l’exclusion des symboles religieux de la sphère gouvernementale, voire de la sphère publique, au nom de la neutralité religieuse. La religion, disait-on, est une affaire privée. Et tant chez les partisans que chez les détracteurs de la Charte de la honte on a contrasté cette vision de la laïcité avec la tradition américaine, ouverte à l’expression religieuse, du moment que l’État lui-même (et non simplement un de ses représentants plus ou moins directs) ne prenait pas position en matière religieuse. (La fameuse lettre de Bernard Drainville et Jean-François Lisée au New York Times, tentant de récupérer l’héritage de Thomas Jefferson pour défendre la Charte avait été largement ridiculisée.) Or, ces deux traditions, ces deux visions de la laïcité, sont moins monolithiques qu’on ne le pense, comme deux récents textes permettent de constater.

Le premier est une entrevue accordée à Sonya Faure de Libération par Stéphanie Hennette-Vauchez et Vincent Valentin, qui soutiennent que les mesures d’exclusion de la religion de l’espace public adoptées par la France ces dix dernières années sont une perversion plutôt que la continuation de la tradition française de laïcité. Les profs. Hennette-Vauchez et Valentin dénoncent une ambiance sociale où « la présence de la religion est désormais jugée insupportable, indépendamment de tout trouble à l’ordre public ou atteinte à la liberté d’autrui » et une « vision de la laïcité [qui] tend à imposer l’obligation de neutralité aux personnes privées » plutôt qu’à l’État. Cette « nouvelle laïcité », expliquent-ils, s’inscrit

dans une logique de contrôle. Elle veut neutraliser tout ce qui, dans le religieux, différencie, singularise. On mobilise la laïcité pour aseptiser le religieux, perçu comme un microbe qui corrompt le vivre-ensemble. Les citoyens devraient renoncer à la part d’eux qui n’est pas commune, dès lors qu’ils entrent dans l’espace public.

Or, selon les profs. Hennette-Vauchez et Valentin, vouloir confiner les manifestations religieuses à la « sphère privée», les éliminer de l’espace public, « n’est pas du tout l’esprit de la loi de 1905 » qui a laïcisé l’État. C’est en fait vouloir effacer la distinction entre l’État et la société, imposant à celle-ci les obligations qui n’incombaient, jusque là, qu’à celui-là. De plus, plutôt que défendre la

liberté […] de croire ou de ne pas croire[,] les partisans de la nouvelle laïcité veulent imposer des restrictions. Ils défendent non pas un droit mais une culture, une certaine manière d’être. On touche déjà à la manière de s’habiller, pourquoi pas bientôt à la manière de manger, ou autre ?

On assiste, en somme, à l’émergence d’ « [u]ne sorte de catéchisme républicain. Derrière la défense de la laïcité, c’est un moralisme national, républicain, politique qui se dessine ». Les restrictions aux libertés individuelles sont justifiées non seulement par la protection des droits d’autrui, mais aussi par « un ordre public immatériel, symbolique [consistant de] valeurs abstraites qui justifient, elles aussi, une restriction de la liberté ». Certes, les considérations morales ont toujours eu un certain rôle à jouer en droit, mais la tendance était à la restriction, sinon à l’élimination de ce rôle. Or, cette tendance s’est désormais inversée.

La logique de contrôle et d’élimination de la différence, faut-il le rappeler, a été bien en évidence dans l’argumentaire déployé au soutien de la Charte de la honte. Force est de constater que ― les profs. Hennette-Vauchez et Valentin ne le disent pas explicitement, mais à mon sens ils le suggèrent fortement ― ce « projet politique » frise le totalitarisme, dont les différentes formes ― fasciste, communiste, religieuse ― ont justement pour parmi les principales caractéristiques communes la fusion entre l’État et la société, ainsi que le moralisme omniprésent et liberticide. Or, les profs. Hennette-Vauchez et Valentin nous permettent de comprendre que, contrairement à ce que les zélotes de la laïcité voudraient nous faire croire, ce n’est ni une conséquence nécessaire de la tradition française de la laïcité ni une lecture universellement partagée de celle-ci.

Le second texte que je voulais aborder dans ce billet présente quant à lui un aspect moins connu de la tradition américaine de laïcité. Il s’agit d’un billet de Eugene Volokh, qui discute une plainte visant un professeur d’une école publique de la Pennsylvanie qui porte un collier avec une étoile de David. Comme l’explique le prof. Volokh, une loi de la Pennsylvanie interdit effectivement le port de « tout vêtement, signe, emblème ou insigne indiquant que ledit enseignant est un membre ou adhérant d’un quelconque ordre, secte ou dénomination religieux » (je traduis, ici et plus bas). Au moins un autre État, l’Oregon, a déjà eu une loi semblable, bien qu’il l’ait abrogée en 2010. Qui plus est, ces lois ont été jugées constitutionnelles par des Circuit courts (mais non, quant au fond, par la Cour supême). Pas Thomas Jefferson, donc, mais il y a bien aux États-Unis un courant de pensée ― si minoritaire soit-il ― voulant que le port de symboles religieux par les professeurs des écoles publiques pourrait être perçu comme un positionnement de l’État en faveur de la religion.

Cependant, comme l’explique le prof. Volokh, la loi de la Pennsylvanie est probablement inconstitutionnelle, et la décision contraire du 3e Circuit, erronée, l’interdiction du port de symboles religieux par des employés individuels n’étant pas nécessaire pour dissiper une telle perception. (D’ailleurs, s’appuyant sur une jurisprudence qui la remet en question, l’école a refusé de donner suite à la plainte contre le professeur au collier à l’étoile de David.) Comme le dit le prof. Volokh, un enfant qui comprend qu’un vêtement ou un bijou reflète une affiliation religieuse doit aussi pouvoir comprendre que des personnes de religions différentes travaillent au sein d’un même établissement, et que cela ne signifie pas que l’établissement est affilié avec toutes ces religions:

De façon générale, les vêtements et les bijoux ne sont pas perçus par ceux qui les voient, même par de jeunes personnes, comme des tentatives [de la part de ceux qui les portent] de persuader les autres de la vérité de leur religion. En fait, tous les États sauf la Pennsylvanie permettent aux enseignants de porter des bijoux ou des couvre-chefs religieux et des objets semblables, et je ne connais aucune preuve de ce que les élèves dans ces États perçoivent ça comme un positionnement en faveur de la religion de la part de l’école.

Et même si cela n’était pas vrai pour de très jeunes étudiants, il faudrait restreindre l’interdiction à ceux qui leur enseignent. Un adolescent, dit le prof. Volokh, peut assurément comprendre

que l’école peut employer des professeurs ouvertement catholiques, des professeurs ouvertement juifs et des professeurs ouvertement musulmans, sans endosser l’une ou l’autre religion.

(Et dire que le PQ voulait imposer les même interdictions dans les universités!) Du reste, souligne le prof. Volokh, dans la mesure ou de jeunes élèves pourraient ne pas le comprendre, l’école devrait tout simplement expliquer que les enseignants sont libres de s’identifier à une religion de leur choix, sans que l’école ne les encourage ni ne les condamne:

Même pour de jeunes élèves, ce n’est pas une leçon difficile, et elle vaut probablement la peine d’être enseignée. Et on peut l’enseigner sans discriminer contre des pratiques religieuses et sans exclure, dans les faits, des enseignants qui se sentent motivés ou obligés de porter des vêtements ou des bijoux religieux.

Cette leçon, les apôtres de la Charte de la honte et les tenants de la « nouvelle laïcité » plus généralement feraient bien de l’apprendre une fois pour toutes. En fait, on se rend bien compte, en lisant le billet du prof. Volokh, que la thèse que ces derniers défendent, la thèse voulant qu’il est nécessaire, pour préserver la neutralité religieuse de l’État, d’exclure la religion des institutions gouvernementales, voire de l’espace public, est non seulement liberticide et discriminatoire, mais aussi carrément infantilisante. Prétendre que les citoyens ne sont pas capables de distinguer une croyance individuelle d’une prise de position officielle, c’est les mépriser.

Quand on compare le débat québécois sur la laïcité à la situation en France et aux États-Unis, on peut se consoler. Non pas parce que les choses sont pires ailleurs (elles le sont, me semble-t-il, en France, mais ce n’est pas une consolation), mais bien parce qu’on constate que, si les idées liberticides qu’on observe chez nous sont , hélas, universelles, la résistance à ces idées l’est tout autant. Et si l’exemple français nous montre combien cette résistance peut être difficile, l’exemple américain suggère qu’elle peut, et doit, triompher.

NB: Je remercie Jean-François Gaudreault-DesBiens pour le lien vers l’article de Libération

Thanksgiving

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Will Baude has posted the text of a proclamation issued by George Washington, then the President of the United States, in 1789, to call for national Thanksgiving celebrations, and an excerpt from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson in 1808, when he was President, to explain his refusal to issue a similar proclamation. These are short but fascinating texts. They are also most topical for us, because they neatly summarize the competing positions in the municipal prayer case which the Supreme Court is now considering, Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (Ville de).

Washington asserted that “it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor.” The submissions of those who argued in favour of the permissibility of the prayer, especially the interveners, and pointed to the Preamble of the Constitution Act, 1982, which states that “Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God” echo this assertion. (These words in the Preamble, for their part, incongruous as they might seem in a constitutional document, somehow echo Washington’s thanks to God “for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government.”)

Jefferson, by contrast, argued that as “the government of the U S. [is] interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises,” he could not even “recommend” a religious “exercise” such as a Thanksgiving celebration. For even a recommendation emanating from the government

must be meant too that this recommendation is to carry some authority, and to be sanctioned by some penalty on those who disregard it; not indeed of fine and imprisonment, but of some degree of proscription perhaps in public opinion. And does the change in the nature of the penalty make the recommendation the less a law of conduct for those to whom it is directed? [Underlining in the original]

This is the position taken by those who are challenging the prayer: even though participation in and even attendance at the prayer is voluntary, it has an exclusionary effect on, a “proscription in public opinion” against, those who do not take part.

My own sympathies lies firmly with Jefferson here, but I think that it is important to acknowledge the pedigree, and the good faith, of the contrary position. The question before the Supreme Court is not an easy one.

On an unrelated note, I cannot resist highlighting a couple of phrases in Washington’s proclamation, which show that, as I have already explained here, the purported difference of national character between the Americans, who believe in “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” and Canadians, who believe in “peace, order and good government” is blown out of proportion by our romantic nationalists. Washington thanked God “for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have … enjoyed,” and implored Him to “bless [all Sovereigns and Nations] with good government, peace, and concord.” So there.

Finally, to my American readers, a happy Thanksgiving. I am grateful for your support!

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.