Bahai News - Abolish prayer before meetings: councillor Saturday 6 January 2001

Abolish prayer before meetings: councillor

Cullen wants moment of silence instead of traditional prayer

Carolynne Wheeler
The Ottawa Citizen

An Ottawa city councillor wants to remove a long-standing tradition of opening municipal council meetings with a prayer, saying it is out of date with the diverse population politicians represent.

"I respect prayer, but I believe it has no place in government because we represent the people of Ottawa, and not everyone in Ottawa is Christian," said Alex Cullen, councillor for Bay ward. He wants the customary prayer replaced with a moment of silence for private reflection instead.

"It is incongruous in creating a new city and entering a new millennium that we carry an anachronism that no longer reflects the city we represent," Mr. Cullen said.

Statistics Canada has not gathered complete religious information on Canadian residents since 1991, when about 10 per cent of residents in the Ottawa-Hull region had no religious affiliation, about one per cent were Jewish, and a little over three per cent practised other major world religions such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the Sikh and Baha'i faiths.

However, provincial statistics show the number of adults practising religions outside mainstream Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity, which means Eastern Orthodox Christians as well as Jews, Hindus, Muslims and others, has more than doubled since the mid-1980s. Two years ago, 830,000 Ontario adults practised a religion different from mainstream Christianity.

The issue of prayer before council meetings has been raised before, most notably in September 1999 with an Ontario Court of Appeal ruling declaring that reciting the Lord's Prayer before municipal council meetings was unconstitutional. The Canadian Jewish Congress, backed by the United Church of Canada, later lobbied the Ontario legislature and a handful of municipalities to cease their use of the prayer.

Parliament uses a non-sectarian prayer, read in English and French and addressed to "Almighty God," while the former regional government of Ottawa-Carleton, and the former municipalities of Ottawa, Nepean, Goulbourn and Kanata reverted to ecumenical prayers. Kanata's prayer did not address a particular deity. Gloucester city council did not use a prayer at all.

The Ottawa prayer that Mr. Munter would suspend is, in the view of Mayor Bob Chiarelli, "non-sectarian and totally appropriate." Mr. Chiarelli said when he was regional chair, he never had the issue raised by a constituent. "It sets the right tone for starting a meeting."

Mr. Cullen, who says even a non-sectarian version doesn't go far enough because it still refers to God, plans to raise the prayer issue during a discussion of procedure during the first official council meeting Monday.

But few of his colleagues or community groups are likely to jump to his support.

Sulaiman Khan, director of the Ottawa-based Islamic Information and Education of Canada, said while a moment of silence would be acceptable, the ecumenical prayer is not offensive to Muslim people, either.

"I don't think we have a big problem with it," Mr. Khan said. "Efforts have been made to have prayers that would be acceptable by all religions. We are not against the prayer at all."

Coun. Elisabeth Arnold, who represents the diverse Somerset ward in the inner city, said she, too was comfortable with the previous practice in the old city of Ottawa. "I think of a moment of silence as something that is usually done for something tragic."

Rookie councillor Phil McNeely, who represents Cumberland, said he had no strong feelings on the issue, but thought there should still be time for reflection -- whether alone or as a group -- before each meeting.

"It doesn't bother me either way," Mr. McNeely said. "I'm a tolerant person, so I'm open to suggestions."

Sample Prayers

Parliament (used since 1994)

Almighty God: We give thanks for the great blessings which have been bestowed on Canada and its citizens including the gifts of freedom, opportunity and peace that we enjoy. We pray for our Sovereign, Queen Elizabeth, and the Governor General. Guide us in our deliberations as Members of Parliament and strengthen us in our awareness of our duties and responsibilities as Members. Grant us wisdom, knowledge, and understanding to preserve the blessings of this country for the benefit of all and to make good laws and wise decisions. Amen.

Regional municipality of Ottawa-Carleton

Almighty God: Let us work together to serve all our people.

Former City of Ottawa

God, our common Father, we thank you for the human and spiritual possibilities that lie in the future. Render our spirits attentive to the needs of our community and to the need for justice and fraternity of our people. Give us your spirit to deliberate and decide with wisdom. Amen.

©Copyright 2001, The Ottawa Citizen

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