Briefly, Jean Tremblay, the Catholic mayor of Saguenay, and his council began their meetings with the traditional Catholic sign of the cross, followed by a prayer. This made Alain Simoneau, an atheist and citizen of Saguenay who attended council meetings, feel uncomfortable and excluded. He asked the mayor to discontinue the religious practice. Tremblay refused, and the game was on.
After meandering through various judicial bodies, the final match was played out before the Supreme Court of Canada, which awarded the win to Simoneau and co-appellant Mouvement laïque québéco, an organization dedicated to the secularization of Quebec.
As an outside observer, it seems both sides were more intent on proclaiming a creed rather than reaching a workable solution. Both, you might say, had an agenda, and finding a reasonable compromise on public prayer was not on the table.
A compromise, such as praying in private before the meeting or arriving after the prayer was concluded – although this would have been slightly awkward – could have resolved the dispute. But a compromise requires at least one side to forgo the “it’s the principle” mentality. It’s this kind of thinking that has become a standard excuse for trying to prove that you’re right and the other person is wrong.
When religion and secularism mix, “it’s the principle” mentality is a poor strategy if you want to persuade someone that your worldview has something positive to offer to society.
I have no doubt Tremblay was sincere in his belief that he was fighting, as he told the Human Rights Tribunal, a noble battle for Christ. And while I admire him for his nine-year commitment to his conviction, I don’t think this battle did anything much for Christ, nor am I sure that this is the kind of battle in which Christ asks his disciples to engage.
As a practising Catholic with a deep attachment to the traditions of the Church, I believe we are called to find new ways to bring the gospel message to a rapidly changing world. We can cherish the outward forms of traditional prayer and worship, but form is not the end game. A particular way of praying should not become a battleground and overshadow the substance of the gospel.
Supreme Court strikes balance between religious and non-religious beliefs by Peter Stockland
Pope Francis, who is immensely popular with Catholics and non-Catholics, challenges Catholics to engage with the world, not through public displays of piety, such as became the issue in Saguenay, but through personal conversion and acts of social justice.
The match-up between Tremblay and Simoneau pitted Catholicism against secularism. Ironically, both worldviews promote the dignity and equality of the human person and foster respect among people. When religion and the public sphere intersect, these common points often get lost when people begin clamouring for freedom of conscience and religion. A polarized all or nothing approach serves no one, and does nothing to further a more just, equitable, tolerant and compassionate society.
There are some secularists who would deny the religious a public voice, arguing that religion belongs behind closed doors. But faith is not something that a person turns on and off like a water tap; it informs action, and many people of faith are making enormous contributions to society. Most do so quietly, never getting into battles that make it to the highest court in the land.
While some individuals may long for a past where prayer was a staple of public life and religious beliefs were held in common, most have no desire to turn the municipal council chambers into a house of prayer.
Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation.