Humanist Perspectives: issue 191: The Saguenay Prayer Case, and a Fitting Tribute to Dagmar Gontard

The Saguenay Prayer Case, and a Fitting Tribute to Dagmar Gontard
by Justin Trottier

Mayor Tremblay was in the hot seat for the recitation of a religious prayer and the use of a crucifix and a statue of the Sacred Heart.

ast month the culmination of decades of work by countless secular activists came to a head in a single two-hour meeting. Those efforts were focused on the elimination of public prayers in municipal government. The meeting was before the Supreme Court of Canada.

On October 14, 2014, the Supreme Court heard the case Mouvement laïque Québécois et Alain Simoneau v. Ville de Saguenay et Jean Tremblay. Mayor Tremblay was in the hot seat for the recitation of a religious prayer and the use of a crucifix and a statue of the Sacred Heart. The question of the appropriateness of the mayor’s actions in Saguenay, Quebec, may seem local. But with a patchwork approach to public prayer across Canadian cities and deep inconsistency between decisions from the Quebec and Ontario Courts of Appeal, the Supreme Court could provide national coherence with regard to the role of prayer in government.

At least that was the hope motivating the Canadian Secular Alliance (CSA) in seeking this potentially landmark church-state case as our first opportunity to act as intervenors. The CSA worked closely with our experienced legal team, headed by Tim Dickson of Vancouver’s law firm Farris, Vaughan, Mills & Murphy LLP, to prepare firstly our affidavit arguing for intervenor status, then our factum laying out our case.

Not content with written submissions, I joined four other CSA members travelling to Ottawa for the hearings. We briefed our lawyers prior to their oral presentation, interacted fruitfully with the press, and experienced first-hand the exciting mix of passion and reason for which Supreme Court debates have no equal.

There is certainly passion on all sides, which seems to erupt spontaneously across the country. In Ontario, secular advocates like Henry Freitag in Penetanguishene and Bill Broderick in Belleville pursued a combination of diplomacy and risky personal lawsuits to secularize their local governments. Robert McGregor organized a petition in Winnipeg which was unfortunately not successful. And Ashu Solo in Saskatoon brought a complaint before the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission which is currently being considered.

CSA members (left to right) Greg Oliver, Justin Trottier, Denise Fong and Andrew MacNeil (also president of the Humanist Association of Ottawa) in front of the Supreme Court of Canada, October 14, 2014.
[Photo: A kindly stranger.]

But perhaps the most intense source of fervor comes from Mayor Tremblay himself, who raised over $180,000 to support his crusade to keep the faith. “I fight this battle because I adore Christ,” he told the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal, which conducted the initial investigation. “When I get to the other side, I’m going to be able to be a little proud. I’m going to be able to tell him ‘I fought for you.’ There is no more beautiful argument.”

This is the irony in the commonly heard assertion that secularists are exaggerating a trivial issue. The mere suggestion that public prayer is being questioned has frequently sparked an intense negative backlash, including death threats and intimidation, from supporters of the status quo. Advocates for public prayer clearly do not see this debate as any more trivial then do campaigners for change, even while many simultaneously mock secularists for their efforts toward equality, neutrality and inclusion.

I wanted to understand how such a seemingly simple and inconsequential practice as public prayer could motivate intense feeling and great efforts among champions on both sides. To that end, I spoke both with advocates for prayer and interviewed colleagues who have fought against prayer. What emerged from both groups was a common understanding that the question of public prayer serves as a proxy in the larger debate over the proper role of religion in the public square. Our society’s collective view on that far-reaching question emerges over time out of apparently minor skirmishes on issues like public prayer. The direction we are thrust in from the outcome of these small-scale battles will influence more consequential debates over taxpayer-funded faith schools, religious accommodations and much else.

“I fight this battle because I adore Christ. When I get to the other side, I’m going to be able to [...] tell him ‘I fought for you.’ There is no more beautiful argument.”
–Mayor Tremblay, Saguenay, Quebec

The secular activists I spoke with registered the additional concern that the supposedly “merely symbolic” inclusion of God in the national anthem, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, or in public prayers, may be transformed into potent weapons in the rhetorical arsenal of the conservative Christian who wishes to argue that ours is a “Christian nation.” We have seen how such smoke and mirrors give rise to talking points in efforts to advance public policies which undermine church-state separation, religious liberty and minority rights.

In other ways, secular champions diverge in their motivations, as for example between Veronica Abbass and Peter Ferguson who both have prayer lawsuits pending against their Ontario municipalities. Veronica Abbass of Peterborough described her personal sense of exclusion. In having to participate in what she describes as a “religious service,” she explained to me “it carries with it the assumption that Peterborough is a Christian city, a Christian society.” Meanwhile, Peter Ferguson of Grey County responded out of a sense of duty to keep our governments accountable to the rule of law. “When I see my governments breaking the law, I intend to take action,” he told me. “I’d expect that from any citizen.”

“Education is as important as legal threats. I insist on education… I think that humans can get together in a peaceful, reasonable process.”
Dagmar Gontard-Zelinkova, at her home in Bancroft, Ontario.
[Photo: Dr Richard Thain.]

My research also gave me the privilege of interviewing Dagmar Gontard-Zelinkova, who fought for years to secularize Bancroft and Hastings County. (For video, please click here.) She expressed her pleasure at having succeeded without going to court. Instead, Dagmar fought long and hard to educate elected officials as to why secularism was in the best interest of all citizens. “Education is as important as legal threats,” Dagmar told me. “I insist on education… I think that humans can get together in a peaceful, reasonable process.”

Dagmar died on August 12, 2014 at her beautiful residence on Baptiste Lake. Her sons Alex and Igor organized a meaningful and moving remembrance that took place just days after the Supreme Court hearings. I think Dagmar would have been pleased to know that her efforts, joined with that of our many fellow secular activists, led to a remarkable event. Reason and passion were united in a peaceful educational process played out in front of the highest court of our land.

In fact, witnessing a Supreme Court deliberation for the first time provided a refreshing sense of an open and inclusive process. The environment was intimate, with a small chamber and Justices in close proximity to the public. The exchange was surprisingly informal and conversational. Justices interrupted speeches with questions or comments, sparking exchanges and even polite sparring. A few Justices opined directly on how to expand neutrality to include atheists. Meanwhile the Honourable Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella, notably sympathetic to the secular side, dismissed claims that religious expression was under attack, asked why officials could not simply pray prior to their public functions, and called out pro-prayer lawyers who argued that neutrality and public religious symbols were not inconsistent.

This case will not be a slam dunk for either side. Justices had challenging questions for all parties and it is impossible to predict how far-reaching they will choose to make their decision. But regardless of the outcome, the cause of church-state separation and equality for non-believers has now been the focus of high-level national attention. That in itself is a vindication of the efforts of our secular activists and a landmark development for our movement.

For the Canadian Secular Alliance policy position on public prayer, please click here.

Justin Trottier is a spokesperson for the political advocacy non-profit the Canadian Secular Alliance and founder of the Centre for Inquiry Canada, an educational charitable organization advancing secular humanism. He is a frequent guest on radio and TV programs discussing church-state separation, skeptical inquiry and fundamental freedoms.