In a unanimous judgment, the Supreme Court of Canada said the reading of a Catholic prayer at council meetings in Saguenay, Que., infringes on freedom of conscience and religion.
As a number of municipalities scrambled to analyze the ramifications of the decision, observers predicted the high court's ruling would pave the way for changes throughout the country in due time.
"It is a heck of a decision," said University of Ottawa law professor Gilles Levasseur.
"It means the concept is applicable across Canada."
The court ruling ended an eight-year legal fight that pitted an atheist and a secular-rights organization against the mayor of Saguenay.
Levasseur noted that the consequences of the court decision stretched much further.
"The Supreme Court starts first with explaining the notion of neutrality of the state and then jumps into the specifics," Levasseur explained, adding that it would likely take two to three years for the decision's full impact to be realized.
In time, the decision could also lead provincial school boards and hospital boards to rethink the recitation of any prayers in their operations, Levasseur added.
"It doesn't mean that they cannot express a recital about society, goodness of people and commitment to what we want to do," he said.
A number of municipalities suspended their practice of reciting a prayer before council meetings in wake of the Supreme Court ruling as they reviewed the judgment, while others said they'd do away with recitation of the Lord's Prayer ahead of meetings altogether.
There were some, however, who clearly said they wouldn't put an end to the practice.
The mayor of Oshawa, Ont., east of Toronto, said he still planned to recite the Lord's Prayer before the start of council meetings — a practice that had gone on in the city for as long as he could remember.
Mayor John Henry explained that before proceedings begin, he asks those in the council chamber to join him "in a moment of personal reflection or the Lord's prayer," followed by a singing of O Canada.
"You can choose to say it, not say it, you can participate or not participate, you can reflect on something in your life," he said.
"Canada is one of these countries where you have a number of options — you have freedom of religion or freedom not to practice religion. People from around the world dream of coming to this country to do both."
Henry noted that he hadn't received any complaints about the council's practice so far, but if an Oshawa resident did want to contest the matter, they could do so.
A stance like Henry's, however, could leave a municipality vulnerable to potential legal action, said Cheryl Milne, executive director, of the David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights at the University of Toronto.
"They do need to take another look at what their practices are," Milne said.
"It's not just that we get to do things the same way we've always done until someone complains. I would expect that our governments have a higher duty to ensure that they're not just adhering to the letter of the law, but that in fact they are putting into place the kinds of policies that are inclusive, and that do separate religion from governing."
Taking out a prayer from routine starts to government proceedings doesn't signal an anti-religious stance, Milne noted.
"It just means you're ensuring you're not discriminating against people of other religions," she said. "Freedom of religion is an individual right, the town council doesn't have freedom of religion."
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