Canada
3 min

Get your God off the Hill

Parliament is rightfully a secular space

Do you know what your political representative is up to? Is she reciting a religious prayer before each day’s work in the legislature? Is he attending prayer meetings on Parliament Hill? Is she representing her constituents in making decisions and taking positions, or is she turning to her religious beliefs — with all their prejudices and bronze-age perspectives — to guide her?

Does it bother you, as it bothers me, that May 15 will see the 43rd annual National Prayer Breakfast on Parliament Hill — the longest running annual event on the Hill? Some 800 people, including MPs, will pray for guidance.

“The object of the prayer breakfast is to gather in the spirit of Jesus Christ and pray together,” this year’s event chair, Conservative MP David Anderson, recently told the Hill Times newspaper. While non-Christian MPs are welcome to attend, the event is proudly, defiantly Christian in a time of multiculturalism and a Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

It’s not the only blatantly religious incursion on the Hill. Conservative MP David Sweet organized a multi-faith breakfast last November and has scheduled another one for this fall.

And every Wednesday morning, a smaller prayer breakfast is held on the Hill.

MPs from all parties attend these events, and other faith-based affirmations and discussions.

Some observers have suggested that they be changed to be inclusive of all religious beliefs. But I think that misses the point: Parliament is a secular institution and politicians who wish to gather together in affirmation of their religious beliefs should do so in a space well away from the Hill.

People, including politicians, have a Charter right, of course, to their religious beliefs. But the rest of us have a right to freedom from those same beliefs being foisted on us and intimidating us through blatant expression in what is rightfully secular space.

Polls show Canadians are suspicious of the intertwining of religion and politics — perhaps the example to the south illuminates the issue for us. Many of us believe that politicians are elected to represent the beliefs of their constituents and not those of their religious leaders or books, and the guiding document of our society is our Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — and not Bronze-age texts.

The issue extends into the parliamentary chambers itself. Various kinds of prayers abound throughout the country. The federal parliament and Senate start each day with a non-denominational prayer, as do the BC and Alberta legislatures. Quebec has a moment of quiet reflections. All other provinces and territories, save one, continue to use the Christian Lord’s Prayer. Only Newfoundland has gotten with the agenda and eliminated it altogether — as it, too, has been the only province to move to a fully secular school system.

Ontario is considering a move away from the Lord’s Prayer in the legislature and has been seeking public input. The religious lobby is in full swing, writing letters to MPs and flooding the online survey. The Christian lobbyists want their particular bronze-age invocation to remain supreme, while other religious groups insist that their ancient invocations be given equal weight. By their very nature, secularists and atheists tend to be less obnoxious on such matters and so are being left out of the discussion — something they will no doubt come to regret.

But the rot goes even deeper. How many school boards and city councils across the country are invoking God as their guidance at the beginning of each meeting? Secular Ontario, led by Ottawa poet and writer Henry Beissel, sent letters in 2006 to some 18 city councils that were still using the Lord’s Prayer. The group pointed to a 1999 decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal (Freitag vs the Town of Penetanguishene for those who want to look it up) that found it was illegal for councils to do so. Secular Ontario also sent a letter to the minister of municipal affairs and housing asking him to enforce the decision.

I know you can guess the rest of it. A couple of councils checked with their lawyers and ceased the practice. Others ignored it. As did the provincial ministry.

The struggle for a truly secular nation is far from over. We may have our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but religious believers continue to shove their antiquated beliefs down our throats. Not willing to practice their beliefs quietly at home and in church, they continue to force themselves on the public square, whether it’s a Prayer breakfast, a Lord’s prayer recitation before a school board considers whether to address homophobia, or quotes from offensive parts of the Christian Bible during a debate on same-sex marriage.

This will only stop when we make it stop.

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