Prayers at Laval city council banned

LAVAL, QC—The Quebec Human Rights Commission has ordered the province's second largest city to stop opening its council meetings with prayer.

The September 22 ruling came as a result of a complaint lodged by a Laval citizen almost five years ago and has already resulted in what is expected to be the first of many more similar requests.

Since the founding of the city and its very first council meeting in 1965, the Laval mayors have opened the proceedings with the following statement: "Grant us Lord, we implore you, your grace and the necessary enlightenment to direct our proceedings and to properly administer our city."

When Danielle Payette attended the council meeting on April 2, 2001 and heard the prayer, she did not appreciate having this religious ritual forced upon her. Believing it countervened her freedom of religion and conscience as guaranteed by the Charter of Human Rights, she lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Commission.

"Prayer has no place at city hall," Payette told the media. "It shows respect only for the beliefs of people of faith, and atheists are ignored." After studying the case and hearing both parties, in 2004 the Commission concluded the plaintiff was justified and recommended that the city of Laval drop the practice.

Mayor Vaillancourt and his administration refused to comply, saying that the prayer did not represent any specific confessional or denominational bent and did not in any way prevent Payette from holding her own convictions or expressing them. The city's lawyer stated that the mayor recited the prayer in her name and on behalf of the members of the council, which in no way affects Payette's religious freedom.

The city's refusal to comply pushed the legal proceedings further, resulting in this most recent judgment.

Payette told the media she was happy with the latest decision rendered by judge Michèle Rivest.

"I am told that I have turned a page in the secularization process," she said, underlining the fact that this was much more than a personal victory.


When detractors pointed out to Payette the contradiction in the fact that while the prayer was abolished, the ceremonial kirpan is tolerated in the city's schools, her response was quick.

"Personally, I would remove all religious symbols, as they have done in France. But I have understood that the wearing of the kirpan does not impose anything on anyone else. When a prayer is recited, however, I am obliged to be involved. Prayer should be a personal thing, not something done in public."

The city administration is studying the 60-page brief and so far refused to make any official comment. Pierre Desjardins, one of the mayor's cabinet members, did point out that such judgements don't go into effect for 30 days.

At press time it was unclear whether municipal council president Francine Légaré would be reading the prayer at the October meetings. Far more telling will be whether reading of the prayer will continue in November once the 30-day mark has passed.

Before the 30 days run out, the Laval city administration will have to decide whether it will continue with a file that has already cost the city more than $40,000 by appealing the case. It could eventually wind its way to the Quebec Supreme Court.

Immediately after the announcement of the decision, Christian Joncas, a resident of the ammalgamated city of Saguenay, officially presented to the Human Rights Commission his plea to have that city drop the practice as well. The Human Rights court's recent decision is applicable only to the case of Payette and the city of Laval and does not automatically carry over to other cities, but jurisprudence is clearly being established by these early cases.

The spokesperson for the Roman Catholic diocese of Montreal said there would be no official statement on the case from Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte. The city of Montreal had already abolished the practice of pre-meeting prayers in 1987 when then-sitting mayor Jean Doré had replaced it by a moment of quiet reflection. The mayor's team of councillors represented a variety of faiths and beliefs and several had expressed concern with the practice.

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