Friday, December 22, 2006

Say Your Prayers, Councillor

Or not. There's an initiative afoot [oops, link now behind a sub wall--this one'll give you the background] by a tiny outfit called Secular Ontario (comprised as far as I can tell of members of the Humanist Association of Canada) to compel the removal of the Lord's Prayer from the opening proceedings of Ontario municipal council meetings. SO have identified 18 offending councils, which include St. Thomas, Ingersoll and Owen Sound, as well as a number of other townships and counties in Grey-Bruce.

This has been in the air for a while now, and its recent legal origins stem from the Freitag v. Penetanguishene Ontario Appeals Court decision of 1999. Now, I'm just a layman here mind so take my analysis for what it's worth, but it seems to me that the judge in that case made it quite clear that the practice of using a specifically denominational prayer doesn't have much wiggle room wrt The Canadian Charter Of Rights And Freedoms. In the case of Penetang, the decision was easy-peasy, as the practice wasn't even listed in the town's by-laws, making the actions of the Mayor in leading an opening prayer "not law but governmental conduct," i.e., not defensible via Section 1 of The Charter. Owen Sound, viz the article cited above, does have the procedure on the books--passed soon after the 1999 decision--but would still have to demonstrate the necessity of maintaining the status quo and explaining why a "compromise" invocation wouldn't do the trick, which should prove a hard sell.

The Province hasn't derived any official policy changes from Freitag, so it might take further individual Charter challenges to make the towns in question more compliant.

I'm of two minds (at least) about this. It isn't exactly the most pressing issue in the universe. It won't change the composition of local councils and from a practical point of view it won't effect how the pothole at the corner of Queen and Main (N.B. every Ontario town has an intersection at Queen and Main) gets filled. And are wussy, non-denominational prayers any better, from the point of view of the anti-theist? But, as always it's the opposition that gets the juices flowing. Stunning legal counter-arguments from Peterborough Mayor Paul Ayotte:

"These guys need to get a life," [he said]. "The rest of us have rights under the Charter of Rights. I have freedom of speech and of religion."

as well as Ingersoll Mayor Paul Holbrough:

“Our community was settled on Christian morals and values. It’s not like I’ve started this. It’s a tradition in council and our community . . .

Geez, the next thing is they’ll want to cancel Christmas.”

Someone definitely needs to go all secular humanist on these guys' asses.

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