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Parksville and Vancouver could face lawsuits if they don't drop prayers

The B.C. Humanist Association is threatening to sue Parksville, which opened its inaugural meeting on Nov. 7, 2022 with a blessing from a pastor
A City of Parksville official declined to comment, saying the matter is with the city’s lawyers. VIA GOOGLE MAPS

The B.C. Humanist Association is putting Parksville and Vancouver on notice they will face legal action if they don’t agree to ban prayers at their meetings.

“We want to make sure that our city government is inclusive and reflective of the entire community,” Ian Bushfield, association executive director, said in an interview Wednesday.

“What we see in the census and polls and statistics is that we have an increasingly diverse and secular population here in B.C. … Where we are trying to draw the line is where the government is endorsing a religious world view.”

Opening a meeting with religious sentiments implies some people are more welcome than others, said Bushfield, adding governments have a duty of religious neutrality.

Parksville’s inaugural meeting on Nov. 7, 2022 opened with a blessing from a pastor at the Parksville Fellowship Baptist Church, who asked God to support council members, ending with: “I pray all these things in the mighty name of Jesus, Amen.”

A City of Parksville official declined to comment, saying the matter is with the city’s lawyers.

The Supreme Court of Canada unanimously found in 2015 that the City of Saguenay in Quebec breached that province’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms because it started municipal meetings with a prayer.

“There is no doubt that the same decision … would have been made under the Canadian Charter,” Joel Payne, the association’s lawyer, said in an April 11 letter to Parksville.

Payne said he was preparing to file legal proceedings citing the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms. His letter followed previous letters to the city that he said were ignored.

He said the association would consider delaying legal action if city hall agrees to a “commitment to obey its duty of religious neutrality and a concrete plan for preventing future breaches” of the Charter.

It is unlikely Parksville could successfully defend its conduct in court, Payne sad.

“By attempting to do so, the city would put itself at significant risk of paying increased costs or special costs because of its refusal to recognize and apply conclusively established constitutional principles.”

Vancouver city hall is also facing a lawsuit, the association said in a Wednesday statement.

In Vancouver’s case, representatives from two Christian churches as well as the Jewish, Sikh and Muslim communities opened the 2022 inaugural meeting.

The five religious representatives delivered a 13-minute collective prayer, the association said.

In November, the association wrote to the city asking it to commit to end the practice. “The city replied that staff ‘will address this matter with the Mayor-elect’ in the future but that the contents of the inaugural ceremony were ultimately up to the next incoming mayor,” the statement said.

“The precedent is clear: local government must be inclusive of everyone. Sponsoring one religion or religion in general above non-religion creates a hierarchy of beliefs in the city. It says that some people are more welcome than others in the community,” Bushfield said.

Teale Phelps Bondaroff, the association’s research co-ordinator and a Saanich councillor, said the Supreme Court’s ruling was clear that municipalities cannot include prayer in meetings.

“This ruling applies to the City of Vancouver, as much as every other municipality across the country, and it applies whether it is one, two, or five prayers. By including prayers in their 2022 inaugural meeting, Vancouver sent a clear message that elevated some religions over others, and religion over non-religion.”

No firm date has been set to initiate court action, but Bushfield estimates it could be in about two weeks.

The association has been monitoring religious prayer at council meetings and contacting local governments about its concerns.

In 2018, 26 B.C. municipalities included a prayer in that year’s inaugural meeting. The association urged them to end that practice and by 2022, only seven were including prayers, it said in a November 2023 statement.

Parksville and Colwood are the only two Vancouver Island municipalities on the list. Colwood’s case was different because a local school sang songs with religious content, the association said.

In a December letter to the association, Colwood said it appreciated the association’s perspective and would consider it.

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