Like a prayer: Rethinking traditions at city council

A predominant prayer, be it Catholic or Protestant, shows disregard for other religious traditions observed in the province, but the notion of a secular prayer is an oxymoron.

Councillors should do what's right every day rather than tacking on a secular prayer to council meetings

A predominant prayer, be it Catholic or Protestant, shows disregard for other religious traditions observed in the province. (Canadian Press)

Despite the Supreme Court of Canada ruling that prayers can't be recited before city council meetings in Saguenay, Que., the Manitoba legislature and Winnipeg's council are still reviewing whether they should continue with prayer.

It would seem that there is nothing further to consider: The Supreme Court ruled against the practice, stating that "the reading of a Catholic prayer at council meetings infringes on freedom of conscience and religion," in the unanimous ruling. 

Further information indicated the need for council to be neutral ground, in which the state does not interfere in religion or beliefs.

In Quebec, the council used a Catholic prayer, indicating that it was a long-time tradition in the province.  While that may be true, just because something is a long-time tradition does not make it right — slavery is a good example of that.  

In Ontario, some municipalities feature the Lord's Prayer instead, again calling it a tradition.

A predominant prayer, be it Catholic or Protestant, shows disregard for other religious traditions observed in the province.

The notion that Catholicism is Quebec's tradition, or Protestantism is Ontario's, disregards those of all other faiths, and most importantly, those who came before. Specifically, First Nations traditions, which obviously preceded Catholic or Protestant faith entering Canada.

Acknowledging the diversity and depth of Canada's religious traditions is not an anti-religion stance, nor is this ruling making any blanket statement about the existence of a higher power. 

Instead, it may herald a new age in which Canadians acknowledge that the power of faith — any faith — should not be relevant to a provincial budget vote or a new city by-law.

Yet, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger, while speaking to the Winnipeg Free Press on the ruling, said "We'll study the judgment to make sure that we're in accord with that and we follow the Supreme Court jurisprudence on that, but we have strong traditions in Manitoba. We'd like to see how they can be maintained."

One wonders, when hearing Selinger's response, why these particular traditions must be maintained. 

Certainly, in examining our province's history (residential schools run by churches, for example) one has to wonder why one would want to nurture any kind of tie between the province and faith traditions.  

In another case, there's the early 20th century founding of Winnipeg's Mount Carmel Clinic, created to provide health care to poor Jewish immigrants who were denied care elsewhere in Winnipeg's hospitals. 

Over time, the clinic opened its door to anyone who needed care, regardless of background.

Our province used to deny its people all sorts of things based on their sex, ethnic background or faith tradition. 

From 1926 to 1943, severe restrictions were placed on admission of women, Jewish, Polish and Ukrainian students to medical school at the University of Manitoba. People in these groups had to compete for a handful of spots set aside for them each year, rather than in the general application pool. 

Province-wide, voting rights in Manitoba were first extended to women only in 1916, while First Nations people with treaty status were enfranchised in 1952.

What are the 21st century benefits to privileging one religion or practice above another?  Why does that need to be maintained in the public sphere?

In regards to city council prayers, Coun. Jenny Gerbasi said the city might be on safer ground because it often does a secular prayer. 

Apparently the practice in city council is for city councillors to take turns offering the prayer. 

Although these offerings seem to mention a higher power, which would contravene a Canadian's right to have freedom from religion, the majority of the prayers printed as examples appear to be sanitized of any particular religious tradition.

In fact, the notion of a secular prayer is an oxymoron. 

One definition of the word secular is: "denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis."  Synonyms to the word secular are "areligious" or "nonreligious."

Spiritual, moral, ethical and religious guidance can all be good things. There's no indication that this ruling should interfere with the need for our councillors and government officials to pray, meditate or observe their religions in the way they see fit.  

Indeed, it may well be a good thing for a premier, mayor or city councillor to consult his or her conscience, and possibly to attend a church, synagogue, temple or mosque on the way to doing government business. 

Using a moral compass to decide important issues about our citizen's social welfare, such as issues of poverty and health care, could be a good thing.  There are no major religions that would keep us, for example, from helping the indigent.

Perhaps it's time for our city and provincial leaders to act in an upstanding manner all the time, regardless of one's religion, belief in the Almighty or lack thereof.

Wouldn't a heartfelt commitment to doing what's right every day serve our city and province better than tacking on a five-minute secular, watered-down version to the beginning of our public discourse?
Joanne Seiff has an M.A. in Religious Studies and is the author of two books. She works as a freelance writer, editor and designer in Winnipeg.


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