An attempt to get rid of the ritualistic prayer that opens up House of Commons sessions in Canada’s Parliament was voted down yesterday despite strong arguments against the tradition.
The history of the House of Commons prayer
The 30-second prayer that opens up those sessions has been around since 1877. It was only minimally modified over the next century, like when there was a new king or queen. Only in 1994 was the prayer rewritten to be more non-denominational. But still. Look at it now. This is the basic prayer that begins government proceedings every day:
Almighty God, we give thanks for the great blessings which have been bestowed on Canada and its citizens, including the gifts of freedom, opportunity and peace that we enjoy. We pray for our Sovereign, Queen Elizabeth, and the Governor General. Guide us in our deliberations as Members of Parliament, and strengthen us in our awareness of our duties and responsibilities as Members. Grant us wisdom, knowledge, and understanding to preserve the blessings of this country for the benefit of all and to make good laws and wise decisions. Amen.
Even though the prayer doesn’t specify a religion, it’s clearly assuming the existence of a monotheistic God. And make no mistake: It’s referring to the Christian one. The prayer also implies that elected officials need to look to a higher power, rather than to themselves, to make the right decisions for their constituents.
If you can’t figure out what to do without spiritual guidance, then you shouldn’t be running for public office. There are plenty of intelligent, thoughtful individuals who can make reason-based decisions for the people they represent. Let those people run for office instead while you find a job at a local church.
But even if government officials like the prayer, then there’s no reason they can’t say it to themselves privately. There’s no reason a prayer should be a formal part of the daily proceedings.
That’s why Bloc Québécois proposed getting rid of the prayer altogether.
Bloc Québécois faced vocal opposition to eliminating the prayer
Tuesday was an “opposition day” in Parliament, which is a day set aside for smaller parties to set the agenda and let their issues come to the table. It can be a chance to raise concerns the government might otherwise ignore.
Bloc Québécois MP Martin Champoux proposed a motion to eliminate the prayer and replace it with a “moment of reflection.” He justified it with references to the changing religious demographics of the country and the principles of church/state separation:
… The fact remains that there is a significant percentage of people in Quebec and Canada who say that they neither believe in God nor belong to any religion.
At a time when we are trying to be as inclusive as possible, can anyone in the House honestly claim that the prayer read before the House starts its business respects every single person’s beliefs and non-beliefs?
For example, right now, a member who is an atheist and feels that their personal convictions are being undermined by the prayer has the choice to sit and wait for the prayer to be over or to wait until the prayer is done before entering the chamber. I think that this member’s conscience rights are being violated.
This same atheist member might appreciate our proposal for a moment of reflection, during which they could meditate or reflect on upcoming business, their grocery list or their weekend plans. It would be their time for reflection. The current prayer does not even reflect all religions. It is a Christian prayer read out in a chamber made up of people of different faiths, including Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus. Does everyone truly feel that this prayer reflects their beliefs?
How strong were his arguments?
So strong that no one seemed to want to debate them. The main complaint from the opposition was that… there are more important things to worry about. One MP noted, “Quebeckers are not exactly losing sleep over the issue he raised today.” Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau echoed those sentiments:
“When I talk to people in my riding of Papineau, to Quebecers and to people across the country, they talk to me about the cost of living, the issues of the war in Ukraine, inflation, climate change. It is on these major issues that we will continue to focus,” he told reporters.
Trudeau also said, “We already have a separation between church and state in Canada. We have respect for all the different religions.” That may be technically true, but anyone in the U.S. could tell you that having a formal separation between church and state doesn’t mean it exists in practice.
Another member of Bloc Québécois, Simon-Pierre Savard-Tremblay, responded to the argument of irrelevance by suggesting it was a lazy way to dismiss the issue:
… Every time we have raised the issue of secularism over the last few years, we have been told that there are other, more important issues. However, the rise of the religious right is troubling, especially at a time when, in 2022, the Parliament of Canada refuses to reaffirm something as fundamental as abortion rights… Is my colleague as fed up as I am with being in a theocratic monarchy?
This debate raged on for a while inside Parliament, but there was support from outside as well. Ian Bushfield of the BC Humanist Association urged the government to get rid of the prayer, saying that “At a time when we see the danger posed by the encroachment of religion in government south of the border, parliamentarians must take this opportunity to defend a secular and multicultural society in Canada.” (It’s a well-deserved dig at Christian nationalism in the U.S.)
The group also pointed out that a similar prayer at a more local level was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2015 because it violated the “state’s duty of neutrality.” Why should the same failed arguments be used to keep prayer in the House of Commons?
The motion to eliminate the House prayer failed as expected
The motion, which was introduced in the House and debated on Tuesday, failed by a vote of 266 to 56 Wednesday.
All Bloc MPs voted for the motion, as did both Green Party MPs and most of the NDP caucus. All Conservatives voted against the motion or abstained, as did all Liberals except for Nathaniel Erskine-Smith.
Just because the result was expected doesn’t mean it wasn’t disappointing, as noted by the BC Humanist Association:
“It was disappointing to see so few MPs actively engaging in the substance of the issue and standing up to support the separation of religion and government,” said BCHA Research Coordinator Dr. Teale Phelps Bondaroff. “Instead of taking the opportunity to reflect on the duty of religious neutrality and how to ensure that Parliament is a welcoming and inclusive space that reflects the diversity of Canadians, they chose to chastise the Bloc for using their opposition day to present a perfectly valid motion.”
There’s never going to be a “good” time to address the symbolic promotion of religion in government. It’s always going to be pushed aside for more pressing matters. And yet by voting against the motion even when presented with a simple fix, the very people complaining about its irrelevance just dragged out the problem even longer.
Even in Canada, too many politicians didn’t want give voters ammunition for future attacks by eliminating a useless and discriminatory Christian prayer in the name of government neutrality. It was far easier to let the problem fester for another day and err on the side of religion.