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City of Edmonton City Council Chambers

City of Edmonton City Council. Prayer silenced from the chamber.

In mid April the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the municipal council in the Quebec town of Saguenay cannot open its meetings with a prayer.  In a unanimous decision, the country’s top court said reciting a prayer at council meetings infringes on freedom of conscience and religion (full ruling here).

The Supreme Court said Canadian society has evolved and given rise to a “concept of neutrality according to which the state must not interfere in religion and beliefs.”

“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.”

In Ottawa, Mayor Jim Watson replaced the prayer with a moment of silence — even though he said the prayer councillors have been reciting for years was non-denominational (as has Edmonton city council).

“I always thought that our prayer was very respectful of all religions and cultures. But the court has ruled and we’ll take the ruling seriously. The alternative I believe would make some sense is to offer, as we did today, a moment of personal reflection and people can pray themselves personally and privately.”

And thus across the nation, city councils including Edmonton, have dropped the respectful tone of cultural and idealogical inclusivity that can only be achieved in cultures seeded by Christian thought… and have now gone prayer-silent.

I might question that when prayer becomes merely a ritual anyways, what good is it?  This reveals a bit of my perspective to the dynamic of prayer as being so much more than lifeless words offered into the ether. I don’t expect city council to be the leaders of prayer, and this decision doesn’t change a thing for the faithful to pray & to speak into the public square, as I have repeatedly noted in recent posts: “Political but not Partisan.” These are the signs of the secularizing times of this post-Christian era.

Mr._Peanut_Goes_to_War

I am not up in arms; I’m not saying this decision is a “travesty;” I’m not even upset that the secular top court of the land has wrestled common sense from democracy… again. I just think it’s odd – to the extreme – that councils across the nation have over-reacted to the decision, and treated prayer like a peanut allergy for the feisty few – the angry atheists who are annoyed by anything contrary to their own positions (do we have to invent a new kind of EpiPen in case a prayer might be uttered?).

I get it: in a pluralistic society like Canada, no one should be coerced into any faith stream; though – this should also apply to secular atheism. But prayer? Before a council meeting? Really?

Praying out of the Silent Planet

A nonpraying world is a “pushing, shoving, demanding world,” Eugene Peterson writes in his fine little book, “Answering God:”

… Voices within and without harass, insisting that we look at this picture, read this headline… The nonpraying world is also an intimidating world. We wake each day to a world noisy with braggadocio, violent with guns, arrogant with money. What use is prayer in the face of government, armies, and millionaires?…

In prayer we intend to leave the world of anxieties and enter a world of wonder. We decide to leave an ego-centric world and enter a God-centered world…

Silence toward God in the chambers of decision-making need only encourage our communal impulse to pray whenever and wherever we are; pray in whatever ways we can pray, and with whatever desire we possess in wanting to be heard. Therefore, be prayerful, for prayer is more enigma than dogma.

For more on prayer, go to Curriculum of the Spiritual Life.

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