The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that elected officials cannot pray before city council meetings.

In a unanimous decision, the court ruled against the mayor of Saguenay's attempt to hold religious prayers at the start of city council meetings.

The case dates back to 2007, when an atheist resident of Saguenay, Alain Simoneau, complained about the Catholic prayers recited by the Saguenay Mayor Jean Tremblay and councillors at the beginning of each city council meeting. Simoneau also complained about the crucifix and a Sacred Heart statue in the meeting room.  

In February 2011, Quebec’s Human Rights Tribunal ordered an end to the prayers, the removal of the crucifix and a $30,000 payment by the cityto Simoneau. At the time, Tremblay was outraged by the ruling, calling it an attack on French-Canadian values. He also used the city’s website to fundraise tens of thousands of dollars for a challenge in Quebec’s Court of Appeal.

In 2013, the highest Quebec court overturned the lower court ruling, deciding that reciting prayer does not violate religious neutrality of a city in its day-to-day operations. However, the court expressed reservations about the presence of religious icons in the assembly chambers.  

The city of Saguenay left the Jesus Christ statue up in its council chambers and began meetings with two minutes of silence instead of an actual prayer while the court cases and appeals were ongoing.

Speaking to CTV News Channel, Cara Zwibel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association said Wednesday’s decision was a “welcome clarification,” but not a surprising one.

“In our view, it should have been quite obvious that reciting a religious prayer prior to a public council meeting was not in keeping without constitutional safeguards and our charter protections that exist in Quebec and the rest of Canada,” said Zwibel.

Zwibel said the Supreme Court’s decision will force “many municipalities” that recite religious prayer in their city council meetings to take a different approach.

“Many municipalities see this as a way to make their proceedings solemn, and that’s certianly fine, but there are ways to do that that don’t prefer one set of beliefs over another and that don’t exclude certain individuals on the basis of their belief or non belief.”

With files from CTV Montreal