Saskatoon shifts to non-specific religious prayer, but fight not over for atheist who made complaint

The City of Saskatoon is fighting calls to ban religious prayer from city events, asking its solicitor to find a way to maintain the tradition in the 130-year-old city founded by temperance Christians while being as inclusive as possible of residents in the rapidly growing city.

At a meeting Monday night, city council received a report written partly in response to a so-far unresolved human rights complaint objecting to a councillor reciting a Christian prayer at a volunteer breakfast in April 2012.

The report laid out three options: forego prayer at civic events entirely, have a moment of silence instead or script general and inclusive language to use that will incorporate spirituality but not name a particular deity.

Council’s executive committee “unanimously” opted for option three, Mayor Don Atchison said Tuesday — a decision he thinks will help a tradition while better representing and serving a city with a greater influx of immigrants every year. The city solicitor was sent back to the drawing board to come up with guidelines — she’s expected back to the committee in four to six weeks.

“Unfortunately some people believe that prayer is just Christian,” Mr. Atchison said. “I think that is a tremendous misnomer in the sense that I think all religions have prayer. The idea behind this is to be inclusive of all faiths and it can be called a blessing, a thanksgiving — it could be lots of things.”

The atheists, however, are not impressed. Resident and community activist Ashu Solo filed the human rights complaint against the mayor’s office and Ward 5 Councillor Randy Donauer, who rose at the April 2012 volunteer banquet and recited a short grace at the request of the mayor. The only acceptable choice, the electrical and computer engineer says, is to not have a prayer at all.

“I think Atchison is misrepresenting what inclusive means. To him being inclusive is having Christian messaging, but the only way to be inclusive and to respect all religions is to be secular, because there are over 10,000 religions,” he says. “It’s impossible to cover all religion, so therefore you should cover no religion.”

The prayer policy is just the latest in a number of controversies around political correctness and the city’s role in matters of faith. Last December, the prairie city drew national attention for refusing to remove Merry Christmas greetings from city buses — a decision that spurred Mr. Solo to file another complaint against the city. The Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast — a long-running tradition in Saskatoon — has also been renamed simply the Prayer Breakfast.

Mr. Donauer says prayer is still a valued ritual in Western Canada — he checked with legislatures and municipalities in the region and found many of them still say one ahead of session — and it should be maintained in the city of Saskatoon.

“We got to the point pretty quick where we didn’t want to ban it in the public arena or at civic events completely because it’s a very common thing out here and I think there’d be a lot of people upset by that,” said the councillor. “What we’re trying to do is come up with a policy that, rather than banning it, is inclusive and not offensive and celebrates the diversity of where we’re living.”

We got to the point pretty quick where we didn’t want to ban it in the public arena or at civic events completely because it’s a very common thing out here and I think there’d be a lot of people upset by that

Municipalities such as Bancroft and Peterborough in Ontario have successfully fought challenges to ban councillors from saying a prayer before council meetings. In May, the Quebec Human Rights Commission allowed Saguenay Mayor Jean Tremblay to say a 20 second speech before council meetings, after he lost a previous challenge before the human rights tribunal.

Also in May, the Ontario cottage country town of Penetanguishene was ordered by the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario to stop saying a Christian prayer before council meetings.

Greg Oliver, president of the Canadian Secular Alliance, said he hopes Mr. Solo’s complaint is successful, as it would have broader implications for the province of Saskatchewan.

“We think [separation of church and state] is a universal principle that should be applied to municipalities Canada-wide,” he said. “That’s the only way that it’s fair to everybody.”

Officials with the City of Saskatoon said council does not routinely say a prayer ahead of meetings.