Supreme Court ends council prayers

Canada's Supreme Court has ruled that a Quebec council cannot open its meetings with a prayer, saying the state must remain neutral in issues of religion and belief.

The decision follows an eight-year legal battle following a complaint against the City of Saguenay and its mayor, Jean Tremblay,  by the Quebec Secular Movement on behalf of atheist Alain Simoneau.

In 2008, the council changed the prayer used to one deemed more neutral and delayed council meetings by two minutes to allow citizens to return if they left the chamber during the recital, CBC reports.  

But in 2011, Quebec's human rights tribunal ordered an end to prayers and demanded that a crucifix be removed from the council chamber. It also awarded damages to Simoneau.

However, Mayor Tremblay used the council's website to raise funds to challenge the decision, arguing it was a fight to preserve province's Roman Catholic heritage.

The Quebec Court of Appeal concluded in 2013 that despite some reservations about religious symbols in the chamber, the council did not impose religious views on citizens.

It ruled that reciting a prayer did not violate the city's neutrality and any interference with Simoneau's moral values was "trivial".

The case went to the Supreme Court last year. It looked only at the issue of reciting prayers and did not consider the question of religious symbols in the council chamber.

In a unanimous decision, it ruled that Canadian society has a "concept of neutrality according to which the state must not interfere in religion and beliefs".

"This neutrality requires that the state neither favour nor hinder any particular belief - and the same holds true for non-belief. It requires that the state abstain from taking any position and thus avoid adhering to a particular belief," its judgement said.

"When all is said and done, 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."

The court ordered the city council and the mayor to stop prayers. It also ordered that Simoneau receive compensation, punitive damages and costs of C$33,200 (£18,135).

In the capital, Ottawa, mayor Jim Watson replaced the traditional prayer with a moment of silence following the ruling.

"I always thought that our prayer was very respectful of all religions and cultures. But the court has ruled and we'll take the ruling seriously," he told CBC.

"The alternative I believe would make some sense is to offer, as we did today, a moment of personal reflection and people can pray themselves personally and privately."

In the UK, councils now have a guaranteed right to hold prayers following legilsation passed in the last days of the parliament.