Prayer at city council: what is faith's place in local government?

A debate about the role of prayer in municipal politics became quite heated on Edmonton AM Monday morning.

Debate over opening prayer rages following Supreme Court ruling earlier this month

A debate about the role of prayer in municipal politics became quite heated on Edmonton AM Monday morning.

Currently, each council session is opened with a prayer delivered by a member of a religious community, with the speaker and denomination rotating regularly.

Some have criticized the idea, arguing prayers are offensive to those who do not believe in organized religion.

"I frankly don't see what personal beliefs in invisible deities has to do with running a city," said Luke Fevin, the director of the Society of Atheists of Edmonton.

However, Reverend Stefano Penna with the Newman Theological College said silencing the prayer is tantamount to stifling cultural diversity.

"It's a bit of a demonstration of the way in which our society is going in order to have an inclusive, diverse culture," he said. "The response that is suggested is, 'Don't say anything that could offend anybody.'

"People speaking from their tradition is very important. If we continue to go this way, you won't be able to have a drum ceremony, you wouldn't be able to have a smudging ceremony at the beginning of anything civic, because the distinction between religion and culture is a western one."

"I think this is being cleverly blurred," said Fevin. "This suggestion that there's this great diversity is actually a little bit of a smokescreen."

Only two of the past 25 council meetings have been opened with an aboriginal prayer, he said, and the vast majority of prayers have been rooted in Christian dogma.

Fevin said there is no way someone who thought religion was damaging would be welcomed to open a council meeting.

"There is an equality issue here," he said. "When it comes to freedom from religion, and freedom of religion, freedom from religion should be applied equally."

"That's a silly statement," Penna said, without missing a beat.

The two were unable to agree on whether adding a simple moment of silence to the rotation of opening prayers would suffice.

"I think 30 seconds of silence is the inclusive thing," said Fevin.

"It depends on what the silence means," said Penna. "Silence is never a neutral thing. In this case, silence is a silencing of diversity … you're making a statement about not saying something."

"If that's the way that a vibrant culture is going to go, well I think we're in a bit of a pickle."

Precedent set in Quebec

The suggestion to drop the opening prayer followings an April 15 ruling by the Supreme Court. In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that starting municipal meetings in Saguenay, Que., with a Catholic prayer was an infringement of freedom of religion and conscience rights.

"The state must instead remain neutral in this regard," the judgement read.

"This neutrality requires that the state neither favour nor hinder any particular belief, and the same holds true for non-belief. It requires that the state abstain from taking any position and thus avoid adhering to a particular belief."

Earlier this month, Mayor Don Iveson spoke out in favour of the rotating prayers, saying the practice helps celebrate Edmonton's diversity.

Council is expected to rule on the matter on Tuesday.


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