Stirring up yet another religious storm

Question of whether to keep the faith or move `beyond it’ sparks furor at Queen’s Park

May 09, 2008 Lynda Hurst, The Toronto Star, Ontario, Canada

First came the sharia issue. Then public funding for all religious schools. Now it’s the Lord’s Prayer.

Why is Ontario poking the same swarm of hornets that’s already stung it twice?

The vast majority of Ontarians weren’t aware the Christian prayer is used to open the Legislature’s daily sessions. Not until Premier Dalton McGuinty announced plans to drop it – or, in his words, “move beyond it.”

Now, feelings are running so high the province’s website crashed this week with an influx of protesting emails from the public.

Once again, the twin issues of multiculturalism and separation of church and state are raising their incendiary heads. And critics are wondering why Queen’s Park doesn’t learn from its mistakes.

“It’s very foolish for the government to bring this up after the lesson of the school-funding issue and the sharia disaster,” says   Randall Hansen, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Immigration and Governance at the University of Toronto.

“Politically, this is madness.”

In 2004, an uproar greeted the news that Muslims who wanted to could use Islamic sharia law to decide domestic disputes.

After months of emotional, sometimes venomous, public debate, the premier put a halt to all religious arbitrations, saying that “no matter where you come from or how long you’ve been here, we are all to be held accountable by the same law.”

Last year, Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory opened the same Pandora’s box, calling for an expansion of public funding to all religious schools, not just the Catholic separate system. The controversial move was widely blamed for his subsequent election defeat.

The animosity aroused during the campaign is believed to have led directly to the current plan.
Changing the Lord’s Prayer tradition is seen by McGuinty as a peace offering to offended minority faith groups, though none has demanded it publicly.

Activist Tarek Fatah, a secular Muslim, says flatly “the idea is a waste of time. There shouldn’t be a prayer at all. If MPPs want to pray, they should go home and do it in private.”
Analysts say the premier is now making the matter worse by suggesting the Lord’s Prayer be retained after all, but with invocations added to it from other faiths on a rotating basis

There is no Charter obligation one way or the other. In 2001, an Ontario appeal court ruled the province’s use of the Lord’s Prayer is covered by parliamentary privilege and thus constitutionally protected.

When McGuinty introduced the idea in February, he said the Legislature “reflects the diversity of Ontario – be it Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or agnostic. It is time for our practices to do the same.”


If so, there are many more belief systems that will have to be taken into account, warns Henry Beissel, president of an Ottawa-based humanist group, Secular Ontario.

“They just don’t learn, do they?” he says.

“Now they have to end the prayer altogether or pay respect to all convictions. And that means secularists, humanists, Marxists … whatever.”

Either poach Quebec’s practice of having a moment of silence “where they can draw energy from what it is they believe in,” or have nothing, says the Concordia University emeritus professor of English.

Last year, Beissel’s group threatened to take 18 municipalities to court for saying the prayer to open meetings.

It argued they were in violation of a 1999 provincial ruling that found the practice contravened the Charter. Beissel says, despite its parliamentary privilege, the Legislature should be held to the same secular standard.

A growing number of observers say the likely outcome of the furor is no prayer of any kind – and thousands of angry citizens.

“The only just move now is not to replace the prayer or add to it, but to abolish it entirely,” says British-born Hansen at U of T. “It’s unbelievable it is still being used.”

The practice in comparably diverse societies is of little help.

The British Parliament uses no spiritual invocation.

But the speaker of the Australian House of Representatives delivers the Lord’s Prayer after a non-denominational preamble.

Both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives employ chaplains – always from Christian denominations – who deliver prayers of their own creation, not the Lord’s Prayer.

Clergy from other world faiths occasionally are guests.

Ontario Speaker Steve Peters and an all-party committee still have to hear from about 50 religious and other groups before making their recommendation at the end of May.

But the fault lines are clearly marked already between people who think the Christian prayer still represents the values of the majority in Ontario; those who view it as an important cultural, not religious, tradition saluting the province’s past; and those who argue that religious commentary of any kind is inappropriate in government.

“It will be the usual cacophony of voices,” says U of T sociologist Bernd Baldus, “and the most organized interests will win the day.”


A controversial proposal to replace the daily reading of the Lord’s Prayer at the Legislature that has prompted more than 7,000 emails and 23,000 petition signatures is important enough to be put to a free vote, Opposition Leader Bob Runciman said yesterday.

The governing Liberals are deferring to an all-party committee now considering alternatives to the prayer, but the Progressive Conservatives say they are adamantly opposed to replacing the daily reading and that politicians deserve to vote with their conscience.

The Liberals can’t brush aside the concerns of more than 30,000 Ontario residents, Runciman said.

Premier Dalton McGuinty angered his Catholic mother and many others by floating the idea of replacing the Lord’s Prayer back in February before giving an all-party committee the job of studying alternatives.

The Canadian Press

Further Reading

Henry Beissel of Secular Ontario is quite an accomplished playwright.


A PETITION, May 7, 2008


Mr. Norm Miller: I have a petition to do with the Lord’s Prayer and it reads:

“To the Legislative Assembly of Ontario:

“Whereas Premier Dalton McGuinty has called on the Ontario Legislature to consider removing the Lord’s Prayer from its daily proceedings; and

“Whereas the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer has opened the Legislature every day since the 19th century; and

“Whereas the Lord’s Prayer’s message is one of forgiveness, of providing for those in need of their `daily bread’ and of preserving us from the evils we may fall into; it is a valuable guide and lesson for a chamber that is too often an arena of conflict; and

“Whereas recognizing the diversity of the people of Ontario should be an inclusive process, not one which excludes traditions such as the Lord’s Prayer;

“Therefore we, the undersigned, ask the Legislative Assembly of Ontario to preserve the daily recitation of the Lord’s Prayer by the Speaker in the Legislature.”

I (Norm Miller) support this petition.

(The wording for this petition can be traced back at least into March of this year.)


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