Canada: The SCC Rules Against Prayer At City Council Meetings

On April 15, 2015, in Mouvement laïque québécois, et al v. City of Saguenay, et al, 2015 SCC 16, the Supreme Court of Canada ended a lengthy judicial dispute that centered on private faith and state secularism in Québec. In a case that will likely have repercussions all across Canada, the SCC held that the Mayor's recitation of a Catholic prayer while making the sign of the cross before public council meetings was discriminatory and breached the State's duty of neutrality. 

Judicial History

Alain Simoneau, an atheist resident of Saguenay, attended municipal council meetings where councillors and officials recited a prayer at the start of council proceedings. These prayers were permitted by a city by-law. Mr. Simoneau and the Mouvement laïque québécois (or Québec Secular Mouvement) filed a complaint against the City of Saguenay with the Québec Human Rights Tribunal (QHRT) in 2006. They alleged that this practice and by-law violated Mr. Simoneau's freedom of conscience and religion pursuant ss 3, 4, 10, 11 and 15 of the Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and breached the State's duty of neutrality.

The QHRT ordered an end to the prayers, demanded that all religious symbols be removed from the chamber and awarded Mr. Simoneau $30,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.

In 2011, the Québec Court of Appeal set aside the Tribunal's decision on the basis that the content of the prayer did not violate the duty of neutrality imposed on the State and that, even if the prayer interfered with Mr. Simoneau's Charter rights, the interference was trivial or insubstantial.

The Court's Decision

The main issues for the Court were the State's duty of religious neutrality and the infringement of Mr. Simoneau's rights (i.e. his right not to be discriminated against on the basis of religion).

The Court allowed the appeal and restored the QHRT's conclusions (1) that the by-law does not apply to Mr. Simoneau; (2) ordering the respondents to cease the recitation of the prayer in the chambers where the municipal council meets; and (3) ordering the respondents jointly to pay Mr. Simoneau $33,500 in damages.

To answer the main question in appeal, Justice Gascon, writing for the Court, began by addressing the appropriate amount of deference that should be given by the Court of Appeal when reviewing the QHRT's decision, i.e. the applicable standard of review. The SCC opined that the choice of the applicable standard depends primarily on the nature of the questions that have been raised. Gascon J. noted that, on judicial review of a decision of a specialized administrative tribunal, such as the QHRT, interpreting and applying its enabling statute, and acting in its specialized area of expertise, the reviewing court should presume that the standard of review is reasonableness and show deference to the tribunal.

In this case, the Court held that the Court of Appeal erred in applying the stricter standard of correctness to all the QHRT's conclusions while assessing the expert evidence on the basis of "palpable and overriding error". Although the standard of correctness applied to the question of law relating to the scope of the state's religious neutrality, reasonableness applied to the questions within the Tribunal's specialized expertise: whether the prayer was religious in nature, the extent to which the prayer interfered with Mr. Simoneau's freedom, the determination of whether the City's practice was discriminatory, the qualification of expert witnesses, and the assessment of the probative value of their testimony.

Madam justice Abella, in concurring reasons, noted that the majority's decision to use different standards of review for different aspects of an administrative decision was a departure from the most recent jurisprudence and could undermine the framework for how decisions of specialized tribunals are generally reviewed. Indeed, it was thought that since the Court's decisions in Council of Canadians with Disabilities v. VIA Rail Canada Inc., [2007] 1 S.C.R. 650, at para. 100 and Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, Local 30 v. Irving Pulp & Paper, Ltd., 2013 SCC 34, [2013] 2 SCR 458, segmentation – where different standards are applied to separate issues  – should only be used in exceptional cases.

On the issue of the recitation of the prayer, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeal's decision and found that the QHRT's finding that Mr. Simoneau had not been treated fairly in relation to other citizens attending council meetings was reasonable. According to the Court, the State will breach its duty of neutrality in the context of a complaint of religious discrimination if the complainant proves that:

  1. The state is professing, adopting or favouring one belief to the exclusion of all others; and
  2. The exclusion has resulted in interference with the complainant's freedom of conscience and religion.

As per Syndicat Northcrest v. Anselemen, 2004 SCC 46,  in order to determine whether an infringement of the freedom of religion has occurred, the tribunal must be satisfied that:

  1. The complainant's belief is sincere; and
  2. The complainant's ability to act in accordance with his or her beliefs has been interfered with in a manner that is more than trivial or insubstantial.

Mr. Simoneau's belief in atheism was found to be sincere, as he felt isolated, uncomfortable and excluded during council meetings. The Court held that the prayer and the exhibition of religious symbols resulted in an interference with his freedom of conscience and religion for the purposes of ss 3 and 10 of the Québec Charter, which was more than trivial or insubstantial, and that the interference was discriminatory. Justice Gascon added that: "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."

Consistent with previous decisions on matters of state neutrality, the Court ruled that the State's duty of neutrality means that a state authority cannot make use of its powers to promote or impose a religious belief.  The Court emphasized that "neutrality is required of institutions and the state, not individuals (...) On the contrary, a neutral public space free from coercion, pressure and judgment on the part of public authorities in matters of spirituality is intended to protect every person's freedom and dignity. The neutrality of the public space therefore helps preserve and promote the multicultural nature of Canadian society(...)."

Concluding Remarks

This decision makes it clear that public governance events, such as city council meetings, should not include prayers specific to a single religion. Such actions are denominational and exclude believers of different faiths, atheists and agnostics alike. While the decision is based on the Québec Charter, the province's legislation corresponds to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms' s. 2(a) protecting freedom of religion. As a result, this will inevitably have a strong impact on municipal councils across Canada, and perhaps will apply to all three levels of government (although an argument that parliamentary privilege applies to the House of Commons and Senate, as well as the provincial legislatures, may also succeed). Several municipalities, such as Ottawa, Windsor and Dieppe, have already suspended their morning prayer, in order to be respectful of their residents' different beliefs.

The decision  is not all-encompassing, however; it leaves open the question of what is permissible in the context of a prayer and the display of religious symbols. Given that the Court ruled that culture or history do not provide suitable grounds to preserve state-endorsed religious expression, it will be interesting to see how this decision is interpreted in light of other similar issues, such as the recitation of a prayer in the House of Commons and the inclusion of the line "il sait porter la Croix" or "he can carry the Cross" in the French lyrics of the National Anthem. Even though religious symbols were not addressed in the decision, this case may be relied upon in support of a complaint against their display in public spaces, for example, the crucifix overlooking the speaker's chair in the Québec National Assembly and the cross atop Mount Royal in Montreal.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Events from this Firm
8 Nov 2016, Seminar, Ottawa, Canada

The prospect of an internal investigation raises many thorny issues. This presentation will canvass some of the potential triggering events, and discuss how to structure an investigation, retain forensic assistance and manage the inevitable ethical issues that will arise.

22 Nov 2016, Seminar, Ottawa, Canada

From the boardroom to the shop floor, effective organizations recognize the value of having a diverse workplace. This presentation will explore effective strategies to promote diversity, defeat bias and encourage a broader community outlook.

7 Dec 2016, Seminar, Ottawa, Canada

Staying local but going global presents its challenges. Gowling WLG lawyers offer an international roundtable on doing business in the U.K., France, Germany, China and Russia. This three-hour session will videoconference in lawyers from around the world to discuss business and intellectual property hurdles.

In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.