Posted on February 17, 2011

Saguenay Mayor Rejects Edict Banning Crucifix, Prayer

Ingrid Peritz, Globe and Mail (Toronto), February 16, 2011

A prayer, a crucifix and a two-foot-high statue of the Sacred Heart have become the latest flashpoints in Quebec’s roiling debate over religion and identity.

The province’s march toward secularism has met its match in the Kingdom of the Saguenay, where a voluble and religiously devout mayor has vowed to fight to preserve the city’s Roman Catholic traditions.

Mayor Jean Tremblay announced Wednesday that he refuses to heed a judgment by the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal ordering him to cease reciting a Christian prayer before city council meetings and to remove the chambers’ crucifix and statue.

Instead, the mayor has launched a toll-free number and posted a link on the city of Saguenay’s website–it features Jesus with outstretched hands–summoning his flock to support his legal battle.

The mayor of the seventh largest city in Quebec announced he will appeal the tribunal’s ruling to Quebec’s highest court. To avoid spending taxpayers’ money, he is urging the faithful to answer his call with donations.

“I am the first mayor in the history of the world to be punished for reciting a prayer,” he said.

In an interview, Mr. Tremblay said he is fighting because he believes French Canadians have become too “pliant” in accommodating minorities while failing to stick up for their own beliefs. At least 90 per cent of Saguenay is Catholic, he said.

“Why is it us Christians that always have to bend? Our values have no importance. You try stopping a Jew or Muslim from praying where he wants,” he said. “We’re ready to respect everyone, but we also want to be respected. It’s gone too far. ”

The number of operators manning the city’s donations line was doubled and calls were coming in from across Canada, city officials said. Wednesday evening, an operator answered the phone offering to accept donations for the Saguenay “prayer trial.”

The mayor’s stand adds a new chapter to the debate over the place of Quebec’s Catholic traditions in an increasingly pluralistic province. Quebec has moved to limit the place of religion in the public realm; the Charest government has introduced legislation to ban Muslim face veils when transacting with the government, and this month legislators unanimously voted for a motion banning the Sikh kirpan from the National Assembly.

But legislators from all the major parties have voted to preserve the prominent crucifix inside the provincial legislature, calling it a part of the province’s heritage.

“It’s not just a religious symbol. It’s a historic symbol–a witness of our history,” Hugo D’Amours, spokesman for Premier Jean Charest, said in an interview on Wednesday.

Still, the pro-secular group that pushed for the prayer ban in Saguenay says it will continue its fight to strip religion from public spaces. The Mouvement laïque québécois, or secular movement of Quebec, says it was dismayed with Mr. Tremblay’s insistence on fighting the court ruling.

The ruling last Friday came after a citizen, Alain Simoneau, complained that the council prayer violated his freedom of conscience. The court agreed and awarded him $30,000 in damages.

“Ours is not a struggle against symbols, it’s a struggle to maintain the neutrality of public institutions,” said Luc Alarie, the group’s lawyer. Mr. Simoneau was awarded damages after suffering from sustained harassment as well as being publicly ostracized by Mr. Tremblay, Mr. Alarie said.

Observers say the debate in Saguenay reflects the pushback by Quebeckers as they face requests to accommodate minorities.

“People in the majority in Quebec are feeling like they are being made to make a lot of concessions to religious minorities, and yet when their religious symbols are in question, there is no conceding on the other side,” said Daniel Weinstock, a University of Montreal professor and Canada Research Chair in Ethics and Political Philosophy. “That is what is fuelling the fire.”

Mr. Tremblay, meanwhile, said that at the next council meeting in March he will insist on reciting the prayer as usual.

“We French Canadians have become too meek. Our country wasn’t founded by meek people,” Mr. Tremblay said. “When Obama was sworn in, there was a prayer that lasted almost 15 minutes. No one commented. We recite a 20-second prayer and everyone starts crying.”