11/26/2012 04:00 EST | Updated 01/25/2013 05:12 EST

Quebec mayor fights for his legal right to pray at council meetings

SAGUENAY, Que. - A Quebec municipality was in court fighting to keep prayers at city council meetings and it kicked off its case Monday by citing the preamble to the Constitution.

The lawyer for Saguenay's colourful mayor, Jean Tremblay, pointed during his opening arguments to the very first words in the 1982 Constitution Act.

The document begins: "Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law."

That fundamental document was cited by Claude Armand Sheppard, a lawyer for the Saguenay mayor who is trying to reverse a decision banning prayers before meetings.

Tremblay says he's also fighting to preserve the province's Roman Catholic heritage. He launched a fundraising drive to raise money for the court case, which started after a complaint from a local resident.

The Quebec human rights tribunal had ordered the prayers be stopped, the crucifix in the city council chamber be removed and that damages be paid to the citizen who complained.

The Quebec Court of Appeal is now hearing the case.

Tremblay says many Saguenay residents support his fight and have given him money to fund the legal battle: "For sure, when you go to court, you expect to win," he said in an interview Sunday. "But it is not only the trial of Jean Tremblay. It is more than that: it is about the whole culture of Quebec."

The mayor's legal team is arguing that the ban threatens traditions and institutions such as Canadian currency, the national anthem, oaths, monuments and religious holidays.

Another one of Tremblay's lawyers, Richard Bergeron, said Monday that the country is loaded with religious symbols and he warned that the case against the mayor could lead to an aseptic public space.

He said it could eventually lead to the iconic crucifix atop Montreal's Mount Royal, and a large statue of Virgin Mary in Saguenay, being removed.

Bergeron urged the court to judge the case on its merits and not on the combative reputation of the mayor. He quipped, in a possible allusion to the province's ongoing corruption scandals: "Wouldn't you rather have a mayor who worships than a mayor who worships money?"

The opposing side cast its case as a matter of fairness.

The lawyer for the Mouvement laique quebecois, the secular group challenging the mayor, said the current practice discriminates against people who don't want to participate in prayers.

Lawyer Luc Alarie said those people have to wait outside the chamber at the start of a council meeting, and risk missing part of it, and therefore be deprived of their constitutional right to be treated equally within a political forum.

The appeals-court judges challenged the securalists' line of reasoning.

"There's no coercion in that kind of rule," said Justice Benoit Morin, one of three judges hearing the case. "Nobody's forcing (your client) to leave the room."

The judges asked a number of pointed questions, at one point challenging the notion that the plaintiff affiliated with the secularist group had really suffered discrimination.

One judge, Guy Gagnon, noted that religious signs are visible in many places: "Should we tolerate no religious signs at all in any public space where elected people are deliberating?"