Prayer in Canadian Public Life: a Nation Divided

Prayer in Canadian Public Life: a Nation Divided

Secularist views reign on SCOC public prayer ban; but few want to remove “God” from O Canada


June 8, 2015 – The recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling regarding prayer at public meetings has touched off a national debate over the place of God in civic life, and the possible ways governments should amend the long tradition of starting meetings with heads bowed.

The latest public opinion poll from the Angus Reid Institute finds that fewer than half (41%) of respondents support the idea of a Christian prayer referring to Jesus Christ at the beginning of a council meeting, compared to nearly twice as many (75%) who say the meeting should just start without any formal ceremony or pause.

The survey of more than 1500 Canadian adults also canvassed opinions on personal importance of religion in everyday life, the SCOC decision itself, and whether the reference to God should be removed from the national anthem.

Key Findings:angus reid institute

  • Just over half (56%) of respondents are in favour of the court’s decision while the rest (44%) are opposed.
  • That support drops to one-third (34%) among the religiously inclined, and jumps to nearly four-fifths (78%) among those who say religion isn’t important to them.
  • In spite of the secularist view on prayer at public meetings, very few (7%) of respondents want to see the lyrics to O Canada changed so that reference to God is removed.

What’s the alternative to starting council meetings without God?

This spring’s unanimous decision from the Supreme Court touched off a flurry of changes to the way governments at all levels begin their public meetings.

Regina, Ottawa and Calgary have all suspended their council prayers in favour of a silent moment of reflection, while other municipalities, including Toronto and Vancouver, had already done away with prayer in council.

But what do Canadians say about the best way to begin? The Angus Reid Institute offered a number of options, and asked respondents to write in their own.

angus reid institute

As noted in the graph above:

  • 75% of respondents want their council to get down to business, forgoing any ritual
  • 73% say a moment of silence for reflection would be acceptable. (Some cities have already moved to this)
  • 65% say that a quick inspiring “pep talk” free of religious references would be a suitable way to begin
  • 52% say the idea of a prayer to God without any reference to a specific religion is acceptable
  • 41% support a Christian prayer referring to Jesus Christ
  • 30% like the concept of starting meetings with a rotating prayer that would give time to a different religion at each meeting

The Supreme Court Decision itself:

In 2007, Alain Simoneau, of Saguenay, Quebec filed a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal objecting to elected officials praying in council chambers before meetings. The tribunal initially ruled that council cease the practice, though this was overturned by a challenge from Mayor Jean Tremblay in the Quebec Court of Appeal in 2011.

Ultimately, Simoneau took his complaint to the highest court in the country, generating the April 2015 decision. The ruling stated that in performing prayer as a precursor to city council meetings, the Saguenay government had “breached its duty of neutrality.”

It appears that the SCOC ruling that starting a public meeting with a prayer is an infringement on the rights to freedom of conscience and religion is in line with the views of a slim majority of Canadians:

56 per cent say they are in favour of the ruling (25% strongly in favour) while 44 per cent are against it (18% strongly against).

That said, levels of support for the ruling are varied across the country:

  • Quebec (63%) and British Columbia (62%) have the highest levels of favourability to the court decision
  • People in Saskatchewan and Atlantic Canada were least pleased with the ban on public prayer, with only a minority voicing support (47% and 43% respectively)

angus reid institute

The generational and religious divide:

There is a large generational gap in perspectives on this issue. Younger Canadians support the court decision by a margin of two-to-one: (67% in favour versus 33% opposed). Conversely, those aged 55+ are much more likely to oppose than support (see chart below).

public prayerThese findings are consistent with the Angus Reid Institute’s special Faith in Canada study from March 2015, which highlighted important generational differences in terms of personal religious importance and views on religion’s impact on society.

Unsurprisingly, there are also notable differences in views on this topic depending on a person’s engagement with religion. Asked whether “religion is important to me in my day to day life”, Canadians are evenly divided (48% agree, 52% disagree).

This division leads to inverse views on the Supreme Court ruling: a strong majority (66%) of religiously inclined respondents disapprove, while the non-religious are firmly in support of it by an even stronger margin (78%).

angus reid institute

O Canada and God

However, an interesting contrast arises when Canadians are asked about other areas of secular conflict in society, in particular the national anthem. There have been questions recently about the line “God keep our land, glorious and free…” and whether this religious reference should be changed.

The Angus Reid Institute poll asked respondents change lyrics to o canadawhat they think about the anthem in the context of this debate, and while there may be contention over the Supreme Court decision, there is little conflict regarding God being included in Canada’s national anthem. As evidenced in the corresponding graph:

  • Fewer than one-in-ten (7%) Canadians said they think “we should change the anthem to remove the reference to God”
  • One-in-three (35%) say the line is “maybe not ideal, but that’s how it was written so just keep it”
  • This leaves a majority of 58 per cent of Canadians who believe “it is fine that O Canada includes a reference to God”

(It should be noted that while the French and English versions of O Canada contain different lyrics, there are religious references in both. The Angus Reid Institute survey, therefore, contained a modified but similar question for both languages.)

When Canadians are asked for their views on whether “reducing the presence of religion in our public life is a sign of progress in our society,” there’s no clear consensus: 45 per cent of those polled agree, while 55 per cent disagree that this is a sign of social progress.

angus reid institute

When asked whether they agree or disagree that the anthem issue is “a case of political correctness gone too far” more than eight-in-ten (85%) agree.

Evidently, while the country is growing more secular in many ways, Canadians are in solid agreement on one thing: we can just leave the anthem alone.

Click here for full report including tables and methodology

Click here for Questionnaire used in this survey

Image Credit: Colin Fast


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