Green MLA's motion aims to do away with daily Lord's Prayer
Higgs, Austin plan to stymie effort to stop legislature's daily Christian prayer
A Green Party MLA says he'll try to halt the practice of a daily, explicitly Christian prayer in the New Brunswick legislature.
But it already looks like Kevin Arseneau's motion won't win the support of enough colleagues to pass.
Both Premier Blaine Higgs and People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin — whose parties together have a majority — say while they support individual religious rights, they consider the daily prayer a tradition rooted in the province's heritage.
"As long as I'm here in government, it's here to stay," Higgs said.
"I respect everyone's individual views and rights and freedoms and religion, but there are some traditions we have that I think are important to New Brunswick and important to our process, and we have to retain them."
Each sitting day of the legislature opens with two invocations followed by the Lord's Prayer, recited in a mixture of English and French. The ritual normally takes two to three minutes.
A priest or minister normally recites the prayers, but the most recent priest in that role moved to a new posting last year. Several MLAs are taking turns leading the prayers until a replacement is found.
Arseneau, the MLA for Kent North, said he stays outside the chamber until the prayers conclude because he does not believe religion and government should mix.
He also said reciting the prayers of one faith sends the wrong message to New Brunswickers who follow other religions. That wouldn't be tolerated in any other workplace, he said.
"What concerns me is that we should try to be a lot more inclusive. No one should be forced into saying a prayer before going to work."
The prayer is part of the routine daily order of business in the standing rules of the legislature. It would take a vote by MLAs to remove it.
Arseneau's motion, which he plans to introduce before the legislature's procedures committee, would replace the prayer with a moment of silence, which is the practice in Alberta.
Moncton South Liberal MLA Cathy Rogers, one of the members who leads the prayer, acknowledged she didn't have a firm view yet on how she'd vote on the motion.
Rogers said her faith is important to her and "to not acknowledge that there is a transcendent belief system in our country would be to not accept what is really a part of our culture."
But she also said she's "very aware that increasingly we have a diverse culture and a diversity of belief systems."
If there were MLAs of other faiths elected to the house, Rogers said, she'd support incorporating their prayers, but for now, no one has raised the subject with her.
"I would open this up for discussion if it became an issue."
'An affront' to historical roots
Austin, a former pastor, said his party will oppose the change, calling it "an affront" to the province's Judeo-Christian roots.
"We must be open to all religions," he said. "That's freedom and that's what our country is built on. With that said, I don't think you have to sacrifice the historical roots of your country or your province to accommodate that."
Arseneau rejects that logic, pointing out women only gained the right to vote in New Brunswick a century ago.
"If we didn't evolve as a society, women still wouldn't be able to vote," he said.
All other provincial legislatures except Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador have Christian prayers. In Ottawa, the daily prayer in the House of Commons refers to "almighty God" but is not otherwise explicitly Christian.
2015 Supreme Court ruling
In 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a prayer at the beginning of city council meetings in Saguenay, Que., violated the Charter right to freedom of religion.
The court said the state "must neither favour nor hinder any particular belief" and must provide "a neutral space" for all believers and non-believers.
It also said allowing religious expression "under the guise of cultural or historical reality or heritage" breaches that neutrality.
But the ruling explicitly excluded provincial legislatures, which under British parliamentary tradition have the privilege to set their own internal rules independent from other branches of government.
In 2001, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that the province's human rights commission did not have jurisdiction over the legislature's prayer because of that privilege.
Arseneau's two Green colleagues both says they support his effort.
"As elected officials, we shouldn't be guided by one religion," said Memramcook-Tantramar MLA Megan Mitton, who said she also remains outside the chamber until the prayer is over.
Green Leader David Coon says while he might favour a different solution than Arseneau's, such as rotating prayers of different faiths, as happens in Ontario, he believes the current prayers must go.
"As everyone always says in the house, 'It's the people's house,'" Coon said. "Then prayer time needs to be reflective of the diversity of people in our province."
With files from Elisa Serret