It’s been only 5 days since the Supreme Court of Canada ruled unanimously that the prayers said by the City of Saguenay discriminated against atheists, and already cities across Canada are reviewing their own practices. But I suspect (although caveated with the standard, I am not a lawyer) this ruling will have wide reaching consequences as there are very few Supreme Court precedents on cases of religious freedom in Canada.
Reading the ruling, I think secularists should feel confident. Here’s my interpretation of my 10 favourite parts of the ruling (in the order they appear).
1. Canadian society supports a secular state, according to the Supreme Court.
The state’s duty of religious neutrality results from an evolving interpretation of freedom of conscience and religion. The evolution of Canadian society has given rise to a concept of this neutrality according to which the state must not interfere in religion and beliefs.
The Supreme Court interprets the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in light of wider society. The highest judges in Canada recognised that Canadians are a generally secular lot and do not want the government interfering with religion.
2. Government must be neutral with respect to religion
The state must instead remain neutral in this regard, which means that it must neither favour nor hinder any particular belief, and the same holds true for non-belief… The state’s duty to protect every person’s freedom of conscience and religion means that it 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.
Canada does not have an official separation of church and state like the USA. This ruling makes it crystal clear though that Canada is a secular country. The government should neither support nor oppose any religion or belief.
3. Atheism is afforded equal protection as religion
Following from the same quotes, belief and non-belief, believers and non-believers, are mentioned in the same passages. This shows that the right not to believe is afforded equal protection under the Charter.
4. Secularism promotes a multicultural Canada
The pursuit of the ideal of a free and democratic society requires the state to encourage everyone to participate freely in public life regardless of their beliefs. A neutral public space free from coercion, pressure and judgment on the part of public authorities in matters of spirituality is intended to protect every person’s freedom and dignity, and it helps preserve and promote the multicultural nature of Canadian society.
5. History and tradition are invalid arguments for maintaining religious privilege
If the state adheres to a form of religious expression under the guise of cultural or historical reality or heritage, it breaches its duty of neutrality.
When I argued that the University of Alberta should remove god from its convocation charge, tradition was the most common argument that it should be maintained. Similarly the Parti Quebecois in introducing its Secular Charter argued that the cross in the National Assembly should be maintained due to cultural history. Nevertheless, the Court is again unambiguously clear: Tradition and heritage is no excuse to maintain religious privilege.
6. Religiously-motivated laws are invalid
A provision of a statute, of regulations or of a by-law will be inoperative if its purpose is religious and therefore cannot be reconciled with the state’s duty of neutrality.
7.Discrimination against atheists is non-trivial
The prayer recited by the municipal council in breach of the state’s duty of neutrality resulted in a distinction, exclusion and preference based on religion — that is, based on S’s sincere atheism — which, in combination with the circumstances in which the prayer was recited, turned the meetings into a preferential space for people with theistic beliefs. The latter could participate in municipal democracy in an environment favourable to the expression of their beliefs. Although non-believers could also participate, the price for doing so was isolation, exclusion and stigmatization.
The adoption of the phrase “isolation, exclusion and stigmatization” is powerful here. School prayer, which is still legal in Alberta public schools, similarly risk isolating, excluding and stigmatizing students who choose not to participate.
8. Ending religious privilege does not promote atheism
Barring the municipal council from reciting the prayer would not amount to giving atheism and agnosticism prevalence over religious beliefs. There is a distinction between unbelief and true neutrality. True neutrality presupposes abstention, but it does not amount to a stand favouring one view over another.
There is a clear difference between secularism and atheism and it’s well described here. The state should be neutral, full stop.
9. Even “inclusive” prayers may exclude atheists
Even if [a council prayer] is said to be inclusive, it may nevertheless exclude non-believers.
Many proponents of public prayers opt for a non-denominational version in an effort to be more inclusive. But even these, which aren’t necessarily sectarian, can discriminate against atheists.
10. The Charter’s preamble does not mean that Canada is a theistic country
the reference to the supremacy of God in the preamble to the Canadian Charter cannot lead to an interpretation of freedom of conscience and religion that authorizes the state to consciously profess a theistic faith. The preamble articulates the political theory on which the Charter’s protections are based.
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms begins with a phrase that “Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God”. The inclusion of this phrase was arguably a sop to the religious right and is used to argue Canada is a Christian country. This ruling destroys that argument and potentially nullifies the use of the preamble in Court.