The May 28, 2013 issue of the National Post carried an intriguing article concerning the Mayor of Saguenay, Quebec. The Mayor has been ordered by the Quebec Human Rights Commission to stop reciting a prayer before council meetings and to remove the crucifix hanging in the council chambers. The complainant argued that the religious practices and symbols infringed on his rights as a non-believer.
This article appeared the same day I was in Montreal attending a discussion forum entitled; Bridging the Secular Divide: Religion and Canadian Public Discourse. Participants from Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) and the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) joined members from the Muslim, Bahia, Jewish, Sikh and Atheist communities to discuss the role of religion in Canada’s increasingly secular society; a society becoming intellectually intolerant of religious influence, as witnessed in the Saguenay context. The conversations were robust and frank but respectful.
But after mourning the loss of respect for religion, reflection must turn to understanding the cause of this loss. It would be easy to attribute it to the devil, or to a world opposed to God. But to limit the cause to this seems incomplete. A more disturbing undercurrent must be noted.
Religion has been experienced as intolerant, forcefully imposing values on others. Religious individuals have been experienced as self-engaged, placing high value on achieving personal blessing. Religious communities have been seen enjoying the benefits of affluent lifestyles. For those seeking models in respecting diversity, and embracing lifestyles reflecting commitment to the global community, religion has not appeared helpful. I mourn that society has not been more adequately impacted by the generosity of faith communities. I lament that society has not better understood the passionate grace of God.
Influence will increase as religion focuses as much on the welfare of others as it does on the welfare of its adherents. Respect will grow as religion models joyful embrace of sacrifice. Embrace will be evidenced as religion also supports values outside its belief system. If religion is to return to a place of favour perhaps some serious recalibrating will be necessary.
The article in the National Post actually had a challenging ending. The Mayor took the Human Rights Commission ruling to the Quebec Court of Appeal. The Human Rights tribunal concluded that “since there were still vestiges of Catholicism in the prayer and religious symbols the city was favouring one religion over others.” The Court of Appeal disagreed stating that “examples of Christian symbolism abound without any evidence that they compromise the government’s neutrality”.
In the end the Court of Appeal overturned the ruling of the Human Rights Commission. Religion had won the right to remain visible. But the task of reclaiming the place of serious consideration remains before us. Far be it that our lifestyles or conduct prevent people from serious consideration of the Gospel message of peace, joy, hope and grace.
The Court of Appeal gave faith another chance of being seen. But the argument used to arrive at this decision is concerning. Justice Guy Gagnon concluded that for the large part of the population the crucifix and other symbols “have been stripped of their religious significance and are seen as historical artifacts.” Therein lies our challenge.