The SCC Rules Against Prayer At City Council Meetings

On April 15, 2015, in Mouvement laïque québécois, et al v. City of Saguenay, et al, 2015 SCC 16, the Supreme Court of Canada ended a lengthy judicial dispute that centered on private faith and state secularism in Québec. In a case that will likely have repercussions all across Canada, the SCC held that the Mayor's recitation of a Catholic prayer while making the sign of the cross before public council meetings was discriminatory and breached the State's duty of neutrality.

Judicial History

Alain Simoneau, an atheist resident of Saguenay, attended municipal council meetings where councillors and officials recited a prayer at the start of council proceedings. These prayers were permitted by a city by-law. Mr. Simoneau and the Mouvement laïque québécois (or Québec Secular Mouvement) filed a complaint against the City of Saguenay with the Québec Human Rights Tribunal (QHRT) in 2006. They alleged that this practice and by-law violated Mr. Simoneau's freedom of conscience and religion pursuant ss 3, 4, 10, 11 and 15 of the Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and breached the State's duty of neutrality.

The QHRT ordered an end to the prayers, demanded that all religious symbols be removed from the chamber and awarded Mr. Simoneau $30,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.

In 2011, the Québec Court of Appeal set aside the Tribunal's decision on the basis that the content of the prayer did not violate the duty of neutrality imposed on the State and that, even if the prayer interfered with Mr. Simoneau's Charter rights, the interference was trivial or insubstantial.

The Court's Decision

The main issues for the Court were the State's duty of religious neutrality and the infringement of Mr. Simoneau's rights (i.e. his right not to be discriminated against on the basis of religion).

The Court allowed the appeal and restored the QHRT's conclusions (1) that the by-law does not apply to Mr. Simoneau; (2) ordering the respondents to cease the recitation of the prayer in the chambers where the municipal council meets; and (3) ordering the respondents jointly to pay Mr. Simoneau $33,500 in damages.

To answer the main question in appeal, Justice Gascon, writing for the Court, began by addressing the appropriate amount of deference that should be given by the Court of Appeal when reviewing the QHRT's decision, i.e. the applicable standard of review. The SCC opined that the choice of the applicable standard depends primarily on the nature of the...

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