A Laval tradition of starting city council meetings with a prayer will be investigated by a Quebec human rights tribunal after a complaint by an atheist who argues religion has no place in state institutions.

Danielle Payette said she asked city council more than two years ago to refrain from holding a short prayer session before each meeting. When she attended, she would sit while others stood briefly for a prayer at the start.

The teacher and atheist says she feels it's embarrassing and that beliefs should be personal and private.

The Quebec Human Rights Commission asked the city to drop the prayer by February 2004 after her complaint, but Laval council has refused. The 27-word prayer asks the Lord to provide them with His grace and the knowledge to run the city well.

The commission has now brought the matter before a human rights tribunal, which is expected to hear the case Thursday and Friday. The commission has advised council to replace prayer sessions with a moment of silence.

The Mouvement laïque Québécois, which promotes separation of church and state, is also a complainant in the case.

The group's lawyer, Luc Alarie, argues that a municipality is a public institution, which doesn't have religious beliefs.

"If you go to a municipal assembly you don't expect to be part of a religious ceremony," Alarie told the Montreal Gazette.

Laval officials say the city has received only one complaint about their prayers.