A Winnipeg atheist plans to file a human-rights complaint over prayers at city hall.
Citing last year's Supreme Court of Canada ruling that reciting a Catholic prayer at council meetings infringes on freedom of conscience and religion, Tony Governo says Winnipeg city council needs to end the practice.
"I dread that word (prayer); it is like nails on a chalk board for me," said Governo, a member of Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba. "It is a charter right and being a charter right, it means the state cannot tell you to do something that you do not want to do."
Governo attended Wednesday's council meeting and when Speaker Devi Sharma asked everyone to stand for the opening prayer, he immediately questioned why he had to stand and why it was called a prayer.
"They are making me listen to a prayer that I do not agree with," he said. "It doesn't matter what denomination or what religion the prayer is."
Last April's Supreme Court ruling stemmed from the opening Catholic prayer at council meetings in Saguenay, Que.
Mayor Brian Bowman said then that the city's legal department was of the opinion that the ruling did not apply here, where councillors are able to base their opening statements on any faith or any other inspirational source.
A review of opening prayers this year show a variety of prayers, some with no religious tone or language, others Christian-based.
However, Governo said even using the word, "prayer" infringes on his freedom of religion. Instead he believes the prayer should be called a "pledge."
Winnipeg-based human rights lawyer Corey Shefman said balancing the religious rights and freedoms for all people — from atheists to Christians to Muslims — is a difficult challenge.
"The municipal government is trying to find a compromise, have they gone far enough is an open question," Shefman said. "Certainly they have tried to make the opening prayer more accessible to non-Christians, to all people generally. There has to be balance...it is important that everyone feels comfortable when they attend meetings of our government.
"Maybe we should ask the question whether it is necessary to have a prayer of any sort?"
Governo called the Manitoba Human Rights Commission Wednesday about the prayers and is currently working on his submission to the commission. He plans to file the complaint by Monday — and if it's rejected, he says he will take the next steps necessary to ensure his complaint gets heard.
The Supreme Court ruling noted the, "recitation of the prayer at the (Saguenay) council’s meetings was above all else a use by the council of public powers to manifest and profess one religion to exclusion of all others."
It also noted it was a "breach of the state’s duty of neutrality."
In response, Mayor Jim Watson of Ottawa replaced opening prayers with a moment of silence. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi also followed suit and ceased opening meetings with a prayer.
Bowman said Wednesday that if the city receives new information beyond last year's legal advice, the issue will be reviewed.
"We want to make sure we are doing everything we can to ensure that city hall is as inclusive as possible and that also means being inclusive of people who choose to express themselves through a religious lens," he said.
"Obviously this is a council decision, not just the mayor's."
With files from the Canadian Press