• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

The Saguenay Case: Another Vestige of Christendom

The Supreme Court of Canada is due to release its judgment on the Saguenay case. And, alas, once again I find myself opposing friends and co-believers on a matter of church and state.

The case centres on the city council of Saguenay, Quebec, that has held a (Christian) prayer in the council chambers before beginning its deliberations. Friends such as Bruce Clemenger of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada have argued that in a free country, city councillors should be free to engage in such public prayer if they so choose.

I respond: No, they should not. If any group of Canadians wants to pray, then of course (ceteris paribus) they should be free to pray. But if they are acting as officials, in council chambers, representing the government of the municipality of Saguenay, then unless Saguenay as a city has decided to be officially Christian, its officials ought not to act as a Christian city council, invoking the Christian God at the start of their official work.

I have argued previously on this blog (here and here) that the same logic forbids me from accepting invitations to pray at university convocations, and why Christians ought to be wary, in general, of prayers at public ceremonies. I don’t know why this is a difficult line for Canadian Christians to understand and observe…unless we really just don’t want to observe it…and our failure to observe it continues to entangle us in court cases we shouldn’t contest and to make us look like we are selfishly clinging to our rapidly disappearing privileges as a Christian majority.

Canadian officials and official events—municipal, provincial, or federal—need to be truly representative of the values we all hold in common as citizens of this city, province, or country. Freedom of religion isn’t the issue here, and contesting such matters as if freedom of religion is at stake blurs the very real struggles we are having about freedom of religion in other sectors.

So I hope the SCC finds against the Saguenay city council and tells them that they are perfectly free to meet together before council meetings to pray, so long as they do so as private citizens. But as officials acting as such, to offer a Christian prayer as a preamble to official deliberations is to symbolize Christendom, and (to put it gently) thus to misrepresent both the actual situation and their constituents.