Nunavut’s public bodies ponder Supreme Court prayer decision
“For now, it’s going to be business as usual”
The law of God or the law of man: which is greater?
Canada’s highest court has come down on the side of man’s law, at least when it comes to any one particular religion: the Supreme Court of Canada ruled this month that praying before a municipal council meeting violates an individual’s freedom of religion and conscience.
That’s based on the principle that the state must remain religiously neutral in its service to the public, said a unanimous decision issued April 15 by Canada’s top court.
“The duty of state religious neutrality flows from freedom of conscience and religion,” the decision says.
The case has its roots in a 2007 complaint from an atheist who took issue with the Roman Catholic prayer said by the city’s mayor and council at the beginning of every council meeting in the Quebec town of Saguenay.
Last year, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case after Quebec’s human rights tribunal and Quebec’s court of appeal issued conflicting decisions.
But what that Supreme Court decision now means for other public bodies in other Canadian jurisdictions, including Nunavut, remains unclear.
“For now, it’s going to be business as usual,” John Quirke, clerk of the Nunavut Legislative Assembly, told Nunatsiaq News April 27.
That means the practice of a daily prayer at the start of the assembly’s sitting will continue.
“The prayer is part of the rules of the assembly, and we’re going to continue with that,” Quirke said.
Unlike other parliamentary bodies in Canada, the assembly does not have a standard prayer, Quirke said.
“We leave it up to the individual [MLAs] who say the prayer, and it’s been like that since day one.”
Jerry Natanine, mayor of Clyde River, told Nunatsiaq News that his community’s council begins each meeting with an individualized prayer.
And, until he’s directed otherwise, that practice will continue.
“Unless they directly come to us and say, you’re not allowed to pray anymore… we’re just going to keep doing what we do,” he said.
Earlier in his term, Natanine’s council discussed having the prayer either before or after each meeting, Natanine said, and decided to pray before.
That’s because all of the councillors believe in God, he said.
“If someone from [Clyde River] would complain about the prayer, that would be a different story,” Natanine said.
In that case, council would have to consider alternatives, such as praying after meetings — after those “without faith” leave — he added.
Joey Murdoch-Flowers, a defence lawyer based in Iqaluit, agreed that this isn’t an issue until someone makes it an issue.
“I’d like to hope that any time the Supreme Court says anything, it’s pretty significant… but I suppose it doesn’t really matter to anyone unless someone makes an issue of it,” Murdoch-Flowers told Nunatsiaq News.
Iqaluit’s mayor Mary Wilman also said her council hasn’t had a chance to discuss the issue yet.
Iqaluit council, like Clyde River and the Legislative Assembly, does not have a standard prayer either, Wilman said.
But the mayor said she expects council will discuss the Supreme Court’s ruling soon.
“I think if it’s not on this week’s agenda, I would think it would certainly be on May 12’s agenda.”