"The state must instead remain neutral in this regard… 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… When all is said and done, the state's duty to protect every person's freedom of conscience and religion means that it may not use its powers in such a way as to promote the participation of certain believers or non-believers in public life to the detriment of others."
My first thought when I heard was, “Good.” My second thought was, “Wait. What?!?”
(Confession time, part one: I had no idea that this was an issue. I guess it never occurred to me that things like this actually still go on in Canada. I thought that separation between church and state existed in this country, and I assumed that, since we have freedom of religion in this country, that that also meant freedom from religion. Hearing this story, and that the legal battle had been going on for eight years, made me feel a bit dumb, a bit naïve.)
It’s a funny thing, though; when you shed a little light on a situation, you sometimes find a whole lot of other things lurking in the shadows, often right under your nose. As this issue became national news, I learned, sadly, that this practice goes on all over Canada, right up to and including the House of Commons. And as if that weren’t bad enough, I discovered that I live in a province in which the mayors of the two most populous municipalities are quite comfortable presenting themselves to the public as being ignorant of how government and our courts are supposed to work.
The Cape Breton Regional Municipality begins its council meetings with a prayer. CBRM mayor Cecil Clarke wants to keep it that way, and has hinted at using “legislative mechanisms” in order to achieve this end. Poor confused Cecil; on the one hand, he says he “believe(s) in the rule of law,” but claims he doesn’t understand the role of the Supreme Court of Canada, which he feels has “betrayed” him with its decision. He would have us believe that the prayer is so essential, and that he cannot perform his sworn duty to the public without it, that he is willing to “do the prayer… in a public hallway outside the chamber.” And what of the council members who don’t join in? Who, I wonder, wants to be looked at as the one who wouldn’t “do the prayer?” This is nothing short of bullying behaviour, and Mayor Clarke should be ashamed.
Here in Halifax, where council meetings begin with a shout-out to “God, Our Creator,” Mayor Mike Savage is taking a more measured approach, saying that he doesn’t “… expect anybody else to be encumbered by (his) beliefs.” However, while speaking at the “Nova Scotia Prayer Leadership Breakfast” last week, Savage made this statement: “The idea of the separation of church and state is confusing.” Though not surprising, considering the audience, this statement calls into question Savage’s ability to put the public good ahead of what his religion might dictate.
It’s difficult to imagine that two educated men in such responsible positions would choose to portray themselves in such a fashion. So, why would they risk sounding like irrational fools? I believe I have an idea. Both men are career politicians, each having competed for and held more than one office, and who arguably hold their current elected office due in no small part to the setbacks in their previous political endeavours. Career politicians are unlike true public servants. Their first responsibility is to themselves; to play, please, and placate the public in order keep their jobs. In politics, it is very risky to be publicly godless. Now, I’m not suggesting that either is faking being religious. However, in terms of political strategy, being publicly pious plays well in Nova Scotia.
(Confession time, part two: I am not religious. In fact, I would probably describe myself as anti-religion. Not in a “burn all the houses of worship” way, and nor do I mock or think myself superior to the religious. Due to a lifetime of personal experience, and because of a careful study of history as well as an eye on world events, I am extremely distrustful of religion, especially when it is used as a justification for hatred, oppression, and discrimination, and I am especially suspicious when religious organizations try to influence public policy based upon unproven claims. Oh, and I’m not an atheist, either. Believing in god is not the same as religion.)
The force of religious pressure is quite prevalent in Cape Breton. There, as in many places, one needs only slap on collar and call oneself “reverend father” to be taken seriously. Think I’m exaggerating? I find it hard to imagine that the local paper would solicit comments from or grant editorial space to just any ultra-conservative, Trudeau and Obama-hating, Fox News-loving provocateur if he wasn’t a catholic priest with a congregation. (Say what you will about Trudeau, but as an avowed catholic who, in his role as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, supports a woman's right to choose, he clearly is not confused by the separation of church and state.) Fr. O’Neill loves to put pressure on the local politicians for being bad Christians, badgering local radio programs with questions, and whining like a petulant child when he feels he’s being ignored. Whatever I or anyone might think of O’Neill, though, his position gives him influence, which he is not shy about using to try and stir up the electorate. By courting religious favour, Cecil is playing it smart. (I can just imagine the slogans for Clarke’s next political campaign: “Vote Cecil Clarke: For The Love Of God!” and “Cecil Clarke: The Only Candidate With A Prayer,” sound like winners to me.)
Before anyone says I’m just another mainlander picking on the poor Cape Bretoners (Note: I was born and raised in Glace Bay), the sway of religion is strong here in Halifax as well. District 13 Councillor Matt Whitman has been laying it on pretty thick, firing back at the court’s ruling for being “intolerant because it prevents councillors from practising their faith,” as if the justices had forbade him from ever attending church again. Whitman, a born-again Christian, tweeted, “Christians being beheaded, crucified & burned alive in Mideast, but "neutral invocation" is a major human rights issue in Canada.” That’s a nice smoke screen, invoking the acts of religious zealots persecuting those with different beliefs to justify coercing people to participate in a religious act that has no place in government chambers. I suspect that old Matt wouldn’t recognize irony if it jumped up and bit him. By Matt Whitman’s logic, long on hyperbole, short on reason, anyone with a problem greater than yours negates yours completely. This is but one example of the kind of pressure that Mayor Savage faces, and it comes from a member of his own council, who the media will happily quote no matter how nonsensical his ramblings.
It’s not completely hopeless here in Nova Scotia, though. In at least one part of my home province, reason has prevailed for a decade, and without a high court edict at that. Acknowledging the need to change to a practice “that doesn’t exclude anyone,” the Municipality of the District of Digby long ago ditched the Lord’s Prayer in favour of a few moments, “…30 seconds or so,” of silence. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling, many municipalities across Canada are finally following suit. I can only hope that Halifax and the CBRM come to their respective senses, and soon.