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Saguenay, Que. Mayor Jean Tremblay, responds to reporters' questions in Saguenay, Que., on Saturday, September 1, 2012. In a decision that had an immediate impact in several cities and towns across the country, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled Wednesday that prayers cannot be recited before municipal council meetings in Saguenay, Que. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS

If you are an atheist and are offended that many municipal councils and legislative assemblies across Canada, including the House of Commons, begin each working session with a prayer to God, then take heart – a new ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada pretty much means the end of this practice.

There is little point in sending up a cheer or letting out a cry of anger. Our government institutions have been evolving toward a complete neutrality on religion for the past 30 years, thanks to the Charter of Rights. There is no explicit separation of church and state in our Constitution, but the fundamental freedoms protected by the Charter have meant that governments have had to respect all religions and their expression, and show no preference for one in particular. The final, inevitable stage in this evolution – an equal respect for atheism – arrived this week with the SCC's decision in Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay.

The decision strips away all remaining arguments for allowing municipal, provincial and federal legislators to show a preference for religious belief over atheism. Any defence that might leap to mind – the respect of tradition, the mention of the "supremacy of God" in the Charter's preamble, the suspicion that banning prayer to satisfy atheists is an expression of support for atheism – is addressed and dismissed by the court.

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The decision is already having an impact. Because it involved a prayer recited before council meetings in Saguenay, Que., some towns quickly ended similar practices this week – Ottawa, for instance. Calgary is reconsidering its opening prayer and waiting for advice from its legal department. In Oshawa, however, the mayor has defiantly vowed to continue the recital of the Lord's Prayer before meetings.

As for prayer in provincial and national legislatures, that's a controversial subject around the world, including in the U.K., the model for our Parliament. Attempts to do away with the opening prayer in Westminster always turn into great big rows, and always fail. Atheist members routinely remain seated during the prayer in protest.

In our House of Commons, members are required to stand during a prayer before each day's sitting. The prayer is recited by the Speaker before the TV cameras are turned on and the public is allowed into the gallery. In Ontario, the Legislature still begins its daily business to the words of the Lord's Prayer. An attempt to move to something a tad less Christian in 2008 was met with intense public protest, and the government backed down.

The House of Commons prayer at least makes a tepid attempt at being more ecumenical than the Lord's Prayer. The problem is that not even the most non-denominational reference to "God" can be acceptable to a sincere atheist, whom the court recognizes as deserving of equal protection under the Charter as any person of faith.

The case heard by the high court involved an atheist man in Saguenay who was offended that his town council opened its meetings with a prayer. He complained to the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal, which ruled in his favour and said the prayer should be banned.

The Quebec Court of Appeal overturned that decision, which brought the Supreme Court into play.

And thus, the ruling. It upholds the Rights Tribunal's decision. We are at a moment in Canada's evolution, the court says, where the state can no longer "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."

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So much for the Lord's Prayer. Government must strive for "true neutrality" in matters of religion, the court ruled. The invocation of a god, no matter how blandly non-denominational, is an explicit endorsement of theism, which is at odds with a society where atheism has equal protection.

Preserving tradition is not a valid reason to continue showing a preference for religion over atheism, the court continued, because any government doing so ultimately "breaches its duty of neutrality." Nor is there an argument to make that banning prayer is inherently atheistic. "There is a distinction between unbelief and true neutrality," the court said, and provided a simple example: The opposite of opening a meeting with a prayer to God is not the absence of a prayer but, rather, opening a meeting with a declaration that we are only guided by reason, and that there is no such thing as God.

As for the reference to God in the Charter's preamble, it merely "articulates the 'political theory' on which the Charter's protections are based," the court said. "The reference to the supremacy of God ... does not have the effect of granting a privileged status to theistic religious practices."

The last possible argument, parliamentary privilege – the immunity granted to the federal and provincial legislatures and to their members that ensures their freedom of speech – could hold sway, the court admits. But it will surely be compromised if members use it to preserve a practice that is deemed discriminatory.

There is no doubt the court's ruling will be controversial. Reciting a prayer before council meetings and legislative sittings is an old tradition. Two-thirds of Canadians identify as Christian, compared with 24 per cent who say they are atheists, according to Statistics Canada. Doing away with prayer will irk many Christians and feel like a violation of their right to express their beliefs.

But does this ruling mean the end of public prayer in government settings? No. An individual or group of like-minded legislators can pray before a meeting, as long as they don't make it part of the proceedings. A moment of silence for all present to reflect on their beliefs, be they theistic or atheistic, would undoubtedly be acceptable to the Supreme Court.

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What the ruling means is that elected officials at all levels need to acknowledge that atheism is as protected by the Charter of Rights as theism. If our legislators share the ideal of a free and democratic society, they can no longer favour one over the other.

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