In Ontario’s Grey County, the Lord’s Prayer is headed to court

Does the Lord's Prayer have any place in city council meetings?Grey County has a long-standing tradition of opening its city council meetings with a recital of the Lord's Prayer.

Peter Ferguson is trying to change that.

The Kimberley, ON, man has filed legal papers in a bid to end what he calls an "illegal" practice.

In the affidavit sworn by Ferguson, he states that Grey County council's "practice of praying at meetings is breaching my Charter rights to freedom of conscience and religion, as well as the rights of other non-believers, agnostics or atheists, and the followers of non-Christian faiths in Grey County," QMI Agency reports.

Ferguson insists that even though he doesn't believe in God, his campaign isn't anti-Christian.

"The religious aspect is secondary. It's the legal aspect that's important," he said. "It's a matter of principle. I don't believe our politicians should be breaking the law."

Ferguson says he first became "sensitized to the issue" a year and a half ago when Owen Sound's council meetings, which started with the Lord's Prayer, were also challenged.

Owen Sound has since implemented a policy that invites members of various faith groups to recite a prayer or observe a moment of silence before its council meetings.

Penetanguishene council, similarly, has recently adopted the nonsectarian prayer used in Ottawa, followed by a moment of private reflection.

Ferguson's papers demand a response by Grey County at a Superior Court of Justice hearing in October. He says he's been asking for action since last March.

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Grey County's warden and MPP claim Ferguson is the only one to complain about council's prayer practices, the Owen Sound Sun Times reports.

"I have not done that research and personally I think there are a lot more serious issues affecting the socioeconomic health of Grey County than putting resources into this matter," said Warden Duncan McKinlay. "We've got road networks, we've got economic development. I understand there should be a separation between the church and the state but they don't have to participate. They could leave the room without any penalty if they're offended. They could bring an alternate prayer if they wished."

Ferguson's approach isn't winning over fans at council. MPP Bill Walker adds that Ferguson has been, at time, "belligerent" with his staff.

"You could retrieve respect in an instant but you are too brain-free and too smug to do so and you make us sick," Ferguson said during a 15-minute scheduled delegation. Before his delegation, he slow-clapped through council's prayer.

Counsellor Arlene Wright told the Collingwood Enterprise Bulletin that Ferguson has called her an "evil woman" — and "a lot worse."

Showing disrespect to get respect is rarely a successful tactic.

Ferguson isn't the only one who wants to see the Lord's Prayer disappear from the public forum.

Last fall, Sturgeon Heights Public School, a rural public school in Alberta, suspended its morning recitations of the prayer after parents complained that their children had to either listen to the prayers or risk being ostracized by their peers, the National Post reported.

That same school will reintroduce the Lord's Prayer this coming school year, after 75 per cent of the students' parents voted in favour of bringing it back. Students will be divided into "pray" and "non-pray" rooms during the morning recitation.

Ontario public schools cut the prayer in 1988, when a landmark ruling found that the Lord's Prayer in public schools violated the Charter. The ruling also stated that giving students the option to sit out the prayer was also a form of religious discrimination.

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Angry parents in opposition of the Lord's Prayer returning to Sturgeon Heights Public School cite the 1988 ruling in Ontario:

"In 1988 a senior panel of Canadian judges ruled on exactly this policy. They found that this policy was discriminatory, exclusive, that it coerced children, that it stigmatized children, and that it denied them their charter rights," Luke Fevin, father of three Sturgeon Heights students, told Global Edmonton.

"So the question seems to be why — even if you can, through a legal anomaly, adopt this policy — why would you chose to do so?"

Alberta and Saskatchewan were granted a Constitutional exemption when they joined Confederation in 1905 that continues to protect the right to prayer in public schools.

Charter rights need to be upheld. And one's personal faith shouldn't waver just because ritual prayer is removed from a public forum. But using hurtful language to attack prayer is just as unacceptable as it is making children pray words they don't mean.

Maybe city council meetings in this country should just open with a rousing rendition of "O Canada" — unless the line "God keep our land" is also an issue.

(Photo courtesy AFP)