Public prayers: a mayor's response

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi responds to criticism of the use of public prayers to start political meetings.
City of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi gestures during a ceremony commemorating the first anniversary of devastating floods that hit Calgary in 2013, at city hall in Calgary. (The Canadian Press)

The Supreme Court has ruled that city hall is not the place for official public prayers. Since many municipalities began their council meetings with a group prayer, the ruling has changed the way many cities and towns open their deliberations.

On our last show, we heard from Lorna Dueck, who says the ruling was the right one because mixing prayer and politics in this way was an affront to both religious and secular Canadians, though for different reasons.

Calgary has now changed its council meetings, to include silent reflection instead of the usual prayer, but Mayor Naheed Nenshi says they're only doing it to comply with the letter of the law.

Opening prayer's purpose

Naheed Nenhsi says he liked the idea of opening council with a prayer for two reasons. Meetings can can get "petty and silly," and sometimes taking a moment can ground the participants.

But he also believes there is a difference between religious neutrality, and secularism.

To me religious neutrality, which the government must adhere to, doesn't mean being secular. It means inviting people to the conversation, to bring all of themselves to the conversation, including their faith.- Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi

He says a lot of people get caught up on the idea of the "separation of church and state," but he believes that in Canada it's possible to create a society that recognizes multiple faiths, without excluding anyone.

Bringing his faith to the conversation

Nenshi, who is Muslim, says he fasts during Ramadan, which means he can't eat at political gatherings, or even have water while giving a speech. 

Last year, Ramadan fell during Calgary's world-famous Stampede, an event that sees the mayor attend dozens of gatherings, including the ubiquitous pancake breakfasts held by multiple community groups.

"It's not a great time to be fasting," he says.

But it doesn't mean he's going to privilege this observance over the events of the community at large.

Does that impact the fact that I'm going to...ban pancake breakfasts during the stampede and we'll have the "sharia stampede"? Of course not. That's ridiculous. But I don't think anyone will try to stop me, and say 'Well you're the mayor of Calgary, you have to eat the pancake.'- Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi

Nenshi says he spends a lot of time in churches, temples and synagogues, and had found a lot common values among people of different faith backgrounds.

"The dignity of every human being, the necessity of service, these are good things, that can be used to build community," he explains.

Next steps in Calgary

Calgary's council is now considering other ways to begin its meeting, now that it has decided to officially stop using prayer. It could be a moment of contemplation, a poem or meditation, or a reaffirmation of the councilors' oaths of office.

"I particularly like the K'naan song 'Take a Minute'," he says. "But I'm not sure that I'll be able to play that at the beginning of every meeting.

Oh God, author of all wisdom, knowledge, and understanding, we ask thy guidance in our consultations, to the end that truth and justice may prevail in all our judgements, amen.- The prayer that used to open meetings of Calgary city council


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