Sunday 1 March 2015

PRAYERS:  Why are people still fighting over them?                         

It never fails. Whenever a government body wants to change a prayer for their opening sessions, someone squawks like a chicken being plucked alive. I believe that the only reason why these dolts squawk is that they like the sound of their voices.

Some people are so overzealous of their religion, if they fail to spend two hours in prayer each morning, the devil will be victorious throughout their days.  But if that is their wishes, so be it.

Thirty-two years ago, a US state senator and a Presbyterian minister faced off in the Supreme Court of the United States over whether the Nebraska Legislature could open its sessions with a prayer. The court said yes, siding with the minister, and for three decades, that settled matters. Such prayers are commonplace in States Legislatures.  Usually it is the Lord’s Prayer.    

The practice of opening sessions of the American Congress with a prayer has continued without interruption for almost 200 years, ever since the First Congress drafted the First Amendment, and a similar practice has been followed for more than a century in Nebraska and many other states in the US.

Clearly the men who wrote the First Amendment religion clauses did not consider the existence of paid legislative chaplains and opening prayers as a violation of that Amendment, for the practice of opening sessions with prayer has continued without interruption ever since that early session of Congress.

To invoke divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making the laws is not, in my opinion, a violation of the rights of the public in general.     

Of course it has to be obvious that an atheist who is a member of government body such as city a council, state or provincial legislature or Congress or Parliament, doesn’t care what form of prayer is used.                                       

Now there are two kinds of people who object to the Lord’s Prayer being used to open the sessions. They are those of other faiths and there are those who would complain on matters that are so trivial, it beggars the question as to whether or not they are mentally unbalanced. Their squawking is not unlike that of frustrated chickens in a hen house.

For the most part, especially in Congress or legislatures, the Lord’s Prayer or some other Christian prayer is enunciated by a paid Christian minister or priest. This will seem unfair to members of the governmental body who are Jews of Muslims—and rightly so for they also believe in God even if God goes by a different name. They must surly ask themselves, “Why should I have to listen to this particular prayer?

The Lord's Prayer

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.

Now I admit that the words are archaic. What does it mean when it includes the words, Thy kingdom come? or Thy will be done on earth as in heaven? These two sentences are rather vague as to their meanings.

When you consider the words of the Lord’s Prayer, can they apply to any religion?  Can the prayers of the Jews and the Muslims apply to any other religion? I couldn’t find a Jewish prayer or Muslim prayer used in the beginnings of meetings so I have chosen common ones used in each of those two  religions

A Jewish Prayer

“Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season.”

A Muslim Prayer

“In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Most Gracious, Most Merciful; Master of the Day of Judgment. Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek. Show us the straight way, the way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, those whose portion is not wrath, and who go not astray.”

It is very likely that Christian, Jewish and Muslim prayers are similar because they are directed to God Himself and it is accepted by all three religions that God and only God can bring blessings upon the people of Earth.

It is obviously correct that no one acquires a vested or protected right in violation of the Constitution by long use, even when that span of time covers our entire national existence, and indeed predates it. Yet an unbroken practice of citing the Lord’s Prayer is not something to be lightly cast aside. However, we are in this current era, and as such, we are more receptive to the rights of others. This is why I believe that the Lord’s Prayer cited at the beginnings of government meetings or sessions should be replaced with a more non-denominational prayer.

The city counselors in Brampton, Ontario have decided that citing the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of their council meetings was not appropriate in the past  since the city has many people of other faiths living in their community. They have replaced the Lord’s Prayer with one that in my respectful opinion is most suitable since anyone of any faith will not be offended when they hear it at the beginning of a council meeting.

Brampton council meeting prayer

(Lord)  “Inspire us to decisions which establish and maintain a city of prosperity and righteousness where freedom prevails and where justice rules. Amen.”

I would have preferred that they added three words to the prayer as I have submitted in italics.

Lord)  “Inspire us to make decisions which will establish and maintain our city of prosperity and righteousness where freedom prevails and where justice rules. Amen.”

In any case, the Brampton prayer is a great prayer. It could also be used by the Ontario Legislature if the word “city” was replaced with the word “legislature”.  Our parliament could also use that prayer if they replaced the word “city” with the word, “nation”.

Of course, to simplify the practice, the mayor could simply say, “We will now have a moment of silence for private reflection and meditation.” And a soon after, say, “Amen.”

 As to be expected, Christian zealots slithered out of the woodwork.  When that invocation was recited, it drew scorn from some of the residents attending that meeting as the word “shame” rang throughout a packed council chamber and people questioned why the Lord’s Prayer had been replaced. The move to a less specifically Christian prayer has pitted many in this deeply diverse and often divided city against each other. As many as 5,000 people signed a petition to replace the new prayer with the Lord’s Prayer.

Don’t these dummies realize that although the Lord’s Prayer is a general prayer that could be applicable to all faiths, those of other faiths recognize it primarily as a Christian prayer and for this reason, they justifiably feel slighted that their prayers aren’t used also.  What is needed and I believe the Brampton council has fulfilled that need, is a non-denominational prayer.

In 1999 the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that the practice of reciting the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of municipal meetings was unconstitutional as it contravened the freedom of conscience and religion provision in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The appeal was in reference to the policy of the city council of the Town of Penetanguishene to recite the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of each meeting. The practice clearly violated the freedom of religion of non-Christian residents of the town who regularly attended Town Council meetings. One resident complained that when everyone stood up when the prayer was being recited, he felt compelled to stand up so that he wouldn’t appear as being disrespectful of Christians.

The by-law of the Town did not mandate recitation of the Lord's Prayer, nor did it refer to the recitation of any prayer or any particular opening ceremony for council and committee meetings. However, the Mayor's authority to conduct the meetings as he chose derived directly from the Municipal Act, while his authority to open the meetings derived from the by-law. The fact that he chose to do so by invoking the Lord's Prayer meant that the recitation of the prayer was part of the meetings and was done pursuant to the authority of the Mayor to open and conduct the meetings. 

It was clear that the purpose of the recitation of the Lord's Prayer at the opening of council meetings was to impose a Christian moral tone on the deliberations of council. That purpose would be an affront to non-Christian citizens and council members attending those sessions.

It is true that the majority of the citizens in Canada are Christian but Muslims represent 3.2% of Canadians, Hindus, 1.5%. Sikhs, 1.4%. Buddhists, 1.1%. Jews, 1.0% and non-religious people, 23.9 %.  Should any of these non-Christian citizens who attend council meetings feel obligated to stand up when the Lord’s Prayer is being recited so that they won’t appear to be disrespectful to the Christian prayer? I think not.

Freedom of religion can primarily be characterized by the absence of coercion or constraint. If a person is compelled by the state or the will of another person to a course of action or inaction which he would not otherwise have chosen, he is not acting of his own volition and he cannot be said to be truly free.

One of the major purposes of the Charter is to protect everyone (within reason) from compulsion or restraint. Coercion includes not only such blatant forms of compulsion as direct commands to act or refrain from acting on pain of sanction; coercion includes indirect forms of control which determine or limit alternative courses of conduct available to others.

Now there is no law that prohibits non-Christians from praying silently to themselves but should they have to do that with a Christian prayer ringing in their ears?  I think not.

Freedom in a broad sense embraces both the absence of coercion and constraint, and the right to adhere to one’s beliefs and practices. Now I am not suggesting that it would be appropriate for a Muslim to get down on his knees and face Mecca and pray while the city council is reciting a prayer. That would be distracting to say the least.

What may appear as good and true to a majoritarian religious group, or to the state acting at their behest, should not, for religious reasons, be imposed upon citizens who have a different view of their prayer to God. The Charter safeguards religious minorities from the threat of the wishes of the majority.

The application judge who heard the citizen’s complaint erred in his approach to this issue. He hadn’t properly considered the effect of the practice of reciting the Lord’s Prayer in earshot of the complainant but instead he only looked at its effect on Christians attending the council meeting. He paid little or no heed to the fact that the purpose of the practice to imposed a specifically Christian moral tone on the deliberations of the Town Council without any real concern of non-Christians attending the meeting, actually ignored the fact that this particular practice contravened section 2(a) of the Charter.  Despite that, the judge decided that there was no need to examine the effects of the practice on non-Christians. However, even if the application judge did consider the effects on the complainant, he erred in finding that the complaint was trivial and insubstantial. The right to not have a prayer that is not of your own religion thrust upon you is in conflict with the freedom of religion enunciated in the Charter and for this reason; his application was not trivial and insubstantial.

This does not mean, however, that every use of religious practices is offensive to the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion. It means only that indirect or unintentional burdens will not be held to be outside the scope of Charter protection on that account alone. For example, section 2(a) does not require the legislatures to eliminate every minuscule state-imposed action associated with the practice of religion.

The purpose of Section 2(a) is to ensure that society does not interfere with the personal religious beliefs that govern one's perception of oneself, humankind, nature, and, in some cases, a higher or different order of being These beliefs, in turn, govern one's conduct and practices.

The Charter shelters individuals and groups only to the extent that religious beliefs or conduct might reasonably or actually be threatened. For a state-imposed burden to be proscribed by section 2(a) it must be capable of interfering with religious beliefs or practices. In short, legislative or administrative action which increases the risk of practicing or otherwise manifesting religious beliefs is not prohibited if the burden is trivial or insubstantial. But in the complainant’s case against the practice of the city council of the Town of Penetanguishene, his complaint wasn’t trivial or insubstantial and the Court of Appeal hearing his appeal agreed.

It may be difficult for members of a majoritarian religious group to accept such a ruling but if they are mindful of the rights of non-Christian attendees at city council meetings, they will accept such a ruling as being fair. But as I said earlier, there are malcontents who will always fight against reason and fairness. My response to their feelings is, (to quote a rather uncouth saying) Tough Titty.

To continue proclaiming the standards of the Christian faith in places where people meet (other than religious facilities) the practice creates a climate hostile to, and gives the appearance of discrimination against non-Christian Canadians. It takes religious values rooted in Christian morality and, using the force of the state, translates them into a positive law that is binding on believers and non-believers alike. The theological content of these continuing practices remains as a subtle and constant reminder to religious minorities within Canada of their differences with, and alienation from the dominant religious culture. That was not the intent of the Canadian parliamentarians who brought us the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In my respectful opinion, non-Christian citizens attending city council meetings and for that matter, even students at schools (other than strictly Christian schools) should not be forced to stand and recite the Lord’s Prayer if there are non-Christians in attendance any more than having to attend a Christian Church unless of course if they are attending a wedding or a funeral.

Nowadays, our religious composition in Canada makes us a vastly more diverse people than were our forefathers. As a nation, we must recognize that diversity and apply it to our practices that don’t conflict with the rights of others.  In the face of such profound changes, practices which may have been objectionable to no one in the time of our forefathers may today be highly offensive to many persons, the deeply devout and the nonbelievers alike.

A non-denominational prayer and a perhaps a moment of silence is similar to the current practice of the Canadian House of Commons. Therefore, the recitation of a denominational prayer does not minimally impair the non-Christian’s freedom of religion as guaranteed in the Charter

UPDATE:  In April 2015, the city council of Saguenay, Quebec  decided that they would no longer recited the Lord's Prayer at the opening of their meetings. 

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