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British Columbia Lieutenant Governor Janet Austin delivers the Speech from the Throne in the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, on Feb. 12, 2019.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

British Columbia’s Legislature has changed its rules to formally allow “reflections” to open proceedings each day, in addition to prayer, amid a debate about the place of religion in Canadian assemblies.

Mary Polak, House Leader for the opposition Liberals, noted MLAs were already permitted to choose between a faith-based prayer or a secular reflection of their choosing, including poems and personal writings.

“We knew that it was coming,” she said of the rule change. “It’s time the description of it, though, caught up with what was actually happening."

Still, Ms. Polak defended keeping prayer in the Legislature, which she said is important to “represent what we’ve got in Canada, which is freedom of religion. We live in a multicultural society, and no place is that better represented than in the Legislature."

The formal change follows criticism from organizations such as the B.C. Humanist Association, that the practice of legislative prayer “discriminates against non-believers and violates the state’s duty of religious neutrality.”

Ranil Prasad, campaign manager and board member of the association, said the move was a “small victory.”

In 2018, Mr. Prasad and the association began research on the 873 prayers delivered in the B.C. Legislature from October, 2003, when the body began broadcasting video of its proceedings, to this February. Daily prayers in the B.C. Legislature are not transcribed in Hansard, the official record of proceedings in the assembly.

The research team coded the prayers based on structure, content and religiosity. Mr. Prasad said they looked for specific keywords and phrases in the prayers such as “in Jesus’ name,” “our Heavenly Father,” and “amen” to categorize them as religious – and, in these cases, as Christian.

They found that more than 70 per cent of all prayers delivered were religious. And although just 20 per cent of all prayers delivered were classified as Christian, the report notes that they were significantly longer – comprising more than one quarter of the 70,079 words used in prayers.

“We see it as a violation of the principle of church and state [separation] – and a big one at that,” Mr. Prasad said.

The association recommended replacing prayers with a time of “silent reflection.” Mr. Prasad, however, said an even better solution would be to replace the practice with a First Nations land acknowledgement or abolishing the practice of legislative prayer completely.

Mr. Prasad believes there are better places to practise faith.

“We’re not saying ban religion, ban prayer,” he said. “If MLAs want to book a committee room and have a prayer session before they head into the chamber, we’re fine with that, just don’t force everyone else to do it.”

The change takes effect for the next Legislature session, scheduled in 2020.

Neither NDP House Leader Mike Farnworth nor Speaker Darryl Plecas were available for comment.

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