This holiday season, the city of Terrace banned Nativity scenes from the covered entrance to City Hall, ending a decades-long Christmas celebration.
The nativity scene belongs to the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic men’s charity, and is usually erected in early December.
The city is citing a Supreme Court decision of Canada stemming from a 2007 complaint against the Saguenay City Council’s practice of holding prayers before each meeting.
Atheist Alain Simoneau’s complaint was upheld by the Quebec Court of Human Rights, but it was later dismissed by the Quebec Court of Appeal, and Simoneau took his case to the Supreme Court.
In a unanimous 2015 decision, the Supreme Court upheld the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal’s ruling, finding that “the prayer is religious in nature, given its context, and the city and its mayor, by reciting it, have shown a preference for one religion.” To harm other religions, this constitutes a violation of the state’s duty of neutrality.”
Terrace City spokesman Tyler Clark provided a summary of the Saguenay ruling, saying that everything the city does is follow the Supreme Court of Canada decision.
“The need to separate religion and government has been the subject of many court decisions in Canada,” he said.
“The decision was made by the Supreme Court of Canada, not by any individual in the city. We’re just following what the law tells us.”
Why the city waited seven years for no immediate response since a court decision in 2015 to ban nativity scenes, Clark acknowledged that the city had not received any complaints or challenges.
He said the previous city council, which ended its term this month, had nothing to do with the matter and that the city was in charge.
Legal experts, however, pointed out that the Supreme Court’s ruling against Saguenay only dealt with the practice of prayer, not what might be considered a symbol of a religious nature.
Simoneau, who filed the original complaint, also wanted the symbols removed, but the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal’s initial decision focused only on prayer.
However, Terrace responded positively to the BC Humanities Association’s request to stop holding prayers at the newly elected council’s inaugural meeting.
The practice ceased when the council was sworn in on November 7.
Last month, the association stated on its website that “you can be good without God,” telling 23 British Columbia cities that held prayers at the 2018 inaugural meeting that they should follow Saguenay’s decision.
Terrace is one of those 23 cities, and one of 21 to tell the association this year that they will not hold prayers at the 2022 inaugural meeting.
As with the nativity scene, the decision was made without committee involvement, Clark said.
In 2019, Quebec took its concept of religious neutrality a step further by passing Bill 21, which prohibits civil servants in “authority positions” from wearing religious symbols such as headscarves, crosses or headscarves at work.
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