Halifax council revisiting prayer after Supreme Court ruling
State must remain neutral on belief or non-belief, court says
A Halifax councillor is "surprised and disappointed" by a Supreme Court of Canada ruling against opening council meetings with prayer.
"I know in Halifax our prayer is so neutral that it shouldn't really offend anyone," said Matt Whitman, councillor for Hammonds Plains-St. Margarets. "It doesn't mention any particular god, or any particular saviour."
The Supreme Court ruled in favour of atheist Alain Simoneau and a secular-rights organization in a unanimous decision. It said reciting a Catholic prayer at council meetings in Saguenay, Que., infringes on freedom of conscience and religion. It said the state must remain neutral about religion and beliefs.
"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," the court wrote.
Halifax Regional Municipality's legal staff are looking at the decision to see if they need to change Halifax's pre-council prayer.
Whitman said atheists in Halifax should tolerate different beliefs expressed in council.
"People in this day and age are going to hear a lot of things in the run of the day that could upset you or offend you, not even regarding religion," he said.
"We have to live in a more tolerant world where if someone says 'God,' even if you don't believe in God, or if someone mentions a particular race or political statement, that you can't get so upset about it. This is supposed to be a world of tolerance."
Whitman identifies as a born-again Christian.
"I like our prayer the way it is and I can feel connected to my God through our prayer. If someone else doesn't believe in God, they don't have to because of the prayer," Whitman said.
He thinks the majority of councillors and most of the people who watch council also appreciate the prayer. "I think most people this day and age still believe there's something more to Christmas and Easter than chocolate. It just shows that there's a higher power and that's okay to acknowledge."
Halifax studying ruling
Jennifer Stairs, spokeswoman for Halifax, said the prayer — or invocation — comes from the Multicultural Association of Nova Scotia and started after amalgamation.
"Halifax is a culturally diverse region. As the municipal government for the region, we want to ensure council meetings and other public gatherings are respectful and representative of that diversity," she said.
She didn't give a timeline on Halifax deciding if it needs to change its custom.
Halifax regional council prayer:
"God, Our Creator
Bless us as we gather today for this meeting.
You know our most intimate thoughts; guide our minds and hearts so that we will work for the good of our community and help all of Your people.
Give us today the strengths and wisdom to carry out our duties in the most caring and respectful ways.
Teach us to be generous in our outlook, courageous in the face of difficulty, and wise in our decisions.