The separation of church and state has become a contentious issue lately in Saskatoon, revolving around the degree to which our city officially recognizes and promotes religious messages and images.
Should governments officially promote religion in their daily messages and events, or should our political institutions be completely secular and remain religiously neutral?
At issue are two situations, one involving a Christian prayer said by a city councillor at an official city event and another involving the display of “Merry Christmas” on city operated public buses. Both situations have been debated in city council and presented to the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission.
While the SHRC has dismissed the complaint regarding the city’s “Merry Christmas” message on buses, they have listened to the issues about prayers at city events, recommending that the city has three options: say no to prayers, observe a moment of silence or include a non-religious prayer.
While there are many who believe that prayer and religion should remain in our political institutions, this is not the way forward in developing an inclusive and progressive society that encourages and accepts all people regardless of their religious affiliations. The separation of church and state is a fundamental premise of a free society.
Some — including Mayor Don Atchison — argue that Saskatoon is a city founded by Christian traditions and that removing these Christian traditions from our political institutions would be a restriction on the freedom of religion.
Atchison has suggested that to restrict official city events and messages from being religiously natured would be akin to the highly restrictive potential legislation in Quebec, which would ban individuals from wearing visible religious symbols while working in public government services. Like most things Atchison says, he is either intentionally misleading or carelessly uninformed in this comparison.
The Quebec ban is one that would affect an individual who is not an elected official from exercising their freedom to exercise their religion. This situation is different from the situation here in Saskatoon in that ours is not one involving individual citizens and their rights but one where the political institution and its agents are making religious statements while officially representing the city.
No one is proposing or seeking a ban on an individual’s religious expression. Mayor Atchison and anyone who wishes to should be more than welcome to continue exercising their freedom of religious expression, so long as they aren’t acting in any official capacity for the city. Hell, Atchison could buy every bus ad in the city with him dressed as Santa Claus saying “Merry Christmas” and that would be fine — so long as he does so as Atchison the citizen, not Atchison the mayor.
Much of the opposition to removing religion — especially the Christian religion — from our political institutions revolves around xenophobic and outdated views on who is pushing for this change and what their motives are.
One only needs to scroll down an online comment section of any news piece on this subject to find expressions of immigrant bashing. “Go back home” and “Keep Sharia out of Saskatoon” are not uncommon statements to find when discussing this topic.
Another common line among those in favour of religion in political institutions is that if “we” (as in white Christians) were to ever go to where “they” (as in non-white immigrants) came from we would be expected to abide by the rules of that country.
Again, this fails in assuming that immigrants are those behind the push for greater separation of religion and political institutions. This argument usually is focused on countries which have significant influence of Islamic traditions, such as Saudi Arabia or Iran.
It is argued that since these countries may not be the most welcoming to Christian westerners, Canada should be just as unwelcoming back. Ignoring the fact that many immigrants may be trying to escape the dogmatic religious theocracies they left behind. This type of thinking leads to a dash to the bottom for how our society treats minority immigrants.
I like to believe that we set the standards for how we behave higher than the worst practices out there. Instead of saying “look how bad it is over there; let’s copy that” we should be saying “look how bad it is over there; let’s be better.”
Atchison has claimed that he favours a prayer that includes everyone. How this inclusion would even be logistically possible is beyond reason. While it may be better than merely rejecting all but a Christian prayer, to include everyone in prayer seems unlikely.
We live in a world where there are thousands of religions, and even more individual points of view on matters of spirituality. The notion of a non-religious prayer is in itself a confounding proposition. The very act of praying recognizes that there is a belief in a deity, which itself is something that not all believe in.
Would there be a religion roll-call to ensure that all in attendance are included in prayer? Would there be an attendance threshold to be set which must be met to have one’s religion included? How would an atheist be included in such a prayer? Would prayers be allowed if they were from people whose religious views include discrimination and hate towards certain segments of the population? Would homophobes be allowed to pray the gay away at civic events? These are all questions that would need to be addressed and which would probably lead to even more quarrelling.
We live in a multicultural Canada. We welcome people into Canada regardless of their religion, be it Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Taoism, Atheism, Agnosticism or the countless other religious points of view that exist.
In order to ensure that all feel welcomed and accepted (as they should) we need to ensure that our political institutions remain religiously neutral and do not endorse any specific religious viewpoint.
Graphic: Cody Schumacher