Interview with Dr. Teale Phelps Bondaroff on BC Legislature Prayers

by | September 18, 2019

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Dr. Teale Phelps Bondaroff is a Debate Coach, Policy-Maker, and Researcher with a focus on community and sustainability. He is on the Board of the Greater Victoria Placemaking Network. He runs a free library in Rutledge Park. He earned a Ph.D. in Politics and International Studies from the University of Cambridge. Here we talk about the new research by the British Columbia Humanist Association on prayer in the BC Legislature, where Dr. Bondaroff was the lead author.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: For the purposes of this interview, we will focus on a particular research project into the legislative prayers in the province of British Columbia of Canada. When we look at the report here, some of the surprising or striking, even shocking, facts come from statements in the opening portions, “It may come as a surprise to many, but before every sitting of the BC Legislature, the Speaker invites an MLA to lead the chamber in prayer.” How did this practice start?

Dr. Teale Phelps Bondaroff: The practice of opening a legislative sitting with prayer originates in the British Parliament, where it is generally believed to have been first adopted around 1558 during the reign of Elizabeth I. In Canada, at the federal level, the practice was adopted ten years after confederation, in 1877. We were unable to determine details about when the practice began in the BC Legislature, and how it might have changed over time. Our understanding is that it has generally been the practice in the BC Legislature.

Practices relating to legislative prayer vary considerably across the country, and we canvass these on pages 13-15 of the report. BC is one of the few jurisdictions, along with Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, where MLAs are invited to lead the chamber in a prayer of their own devising. 

Jacobsen: What have been the main contents of the prayers?

Phelps Bondaroff: The content of the prayers had considerable variation. We coded each prayer based on a number of categories and from this we categorize 71.2% of all the prayers delivered in the BC Legislature as religious. Of these, we were able to identify the religion for 21.7%. Of the prayers where we could identify the religion, 93.1% of these were identified as ‘Christian,’ and Christian prayers represented 20.2% of all of the prayers delivered in the BC Legislature.

For other contents of the prayer, it is valuable to quote the executive summary of the report, where we outline that:

  • 91.9% of prayers adopted a prayer structure by ending in ‘Amen,’ and 53.8% of prayers included the name of a deity. Even 88.7% of the prayers coded as ‘secular’ were found to end in ‘Amen.’
  • NDP MLAs were marginally more likely to deliver secular prayers, compared with Liberal MLAs (31.4% vs. 26.0% of prayers).
  • Liberal MLAs were significantly more likely to deliver Christian prayers, with 25.4% of prayers given by Liberal MLAs being Christian, compared with 9.2% of prayers delivered by NDP MLAs.
  • For both parties, the number of sectarian and Christian prayers have been steadily increasing.

Looking at other content, we also found the following:

  • There has been a steady increase in the amount of First Nations content in prayers, though only 6.0% of prayers contained First Nations content, and the vast majority of this content (85.7%) was the use of a single word.
  • NDP MLAs were significantly more likely to include First Nations content than Liberal MLAs (11.7% versus 0.2%).
  • Ten (10) prayers were found to have overt partisan content.
  • MLAs are given the option of delivering one of five standard prayers, or a prayer of their own devising. The number of MLAs choosing either option was split evenly (50.0%). We were unable to determine when the list of five standard prayers was adopted, but can confirm that the list has been in use at least for the full duration of the period covered by this study.
  • Liberal MLAs were significantly more likely to use standard prayers than NDP MLAs (64.0% vs. 35.0% of prayers).
  • NDP MLAs were more likely to make alterations to the standard prayers when they used them, altering the standard prayers 55.1% of the time, compared with Liberal MLAs who only altered the standard prayers they used 22.5% of the time.
  • The use of the standard prayers is on a steady decline, with more MLAs opting to deliver prayers of their own devising.

Jacobsen: How have the prayers in the BC Legislature tended towards the religious? 

Phelps Bondaroff: There are a number of ways in which prayers in the BC Legislature tend towards the religious. Those interested in how we coded the religiosity and structure of prayers can find a detailed breakdown on pages 50-56 in the report, and discussion on pages 72-73. But in short, we noticed that even ‘secular’ prayers had a tendency to adopt a ‘prayer structure.’ Of the prayers coded as ‘secular,’ 88.7% still ended in ‘amen.’

As we note in the report, “the idea of having time set aside at the beginning of a meeting for ‘prayer’ reflects a specific conceptual framework, at the exclusion of others. Structuring the time in this way prescribes the form that the discourse delivered in this time will take. Far from being an ecumenical time allocated for a diversity of faith traditions to share their beliefs, this time is generally perceived as a time for Christian prayer. As a result, other beliefs and traditions are seen guests in this space, and as guests, they tend to adopt the structure of the space they are visiting. In other words, if you are asked to deliver a prayer, you are much less likely to ‘colour outside of the lines’ and deliver some other kind of declaration. Instead you are likely to structure your discourse in the form of a prayer, one that likely adopts the structure of the dominant faith tradition.

We can see this in the structure of the prayers delivered in the BC Legislature” (page 72).

Furthermore, “The fact that the BC Legislature has time allocated for ‘prayer’ and that MLAs are called upon by the Speaker to ‘lead us in prayer,’ inherently biases this time in favour of religious prayers and statements which adopt the structure of a Christian prayer. As a result, this practice excludes both non-believers and those whose religious traditions do not include ‘prayer’ or prayer which adopts a ‘Christian’ format” (page 73).

When we looked at prayers that contained the names of deities, we found that 466 (53.8%) of the prayers delivered in the BC Legislature, included the name of a deity. Furthermore, when we looked at the use of other religious language, we found that 566 (65.3%) of all of the prayers delivered in the BC Legislature contained religious language.

Jacobsen: Why has there never been a study into this before?

Phelps Bondaroff: Yes, the only other previous study that considered prayers in the BC Legislature only looked at the content of prayers delivered before Speeches from the Throne. “Bueckert et al., studied 31 prayers from the 35th Parliament in 1992 to the fifth session of the 40th Parliament in 2016.[1]This study was relatively straightforward. The set of prayers analyzed were delivered by members of the public, and the religious affiliation and title of those individuals was identified along with their names. As a result, the authors were able to gauge the religion of the prayer by looking at the religious affiliation of the person delivering it, and to a much lesser extent the language used, to identify the religion of that prayer.

Bueckert et al. “found 67.7% of all prayers to be ‘Christian’ prayers, 12.9% of the prayers as ‘non-denominational,’ followed by Indigenous (9.7%), Jewish (6.5%), and Muslim (3.2%). Comparing these numbers to the 2011 National Household Survey, the authors were able to roughly gauge the extent to which the associated religions of this subset of prayers in the BC Legislature reflected the general religious makeup of the province.” The authors of this study concluded that “in the past 24 years, the faiths that are represented within prayers delivered prior to the Speech from the Throne do not directly correlate to the percentage of British Columbians that identify with each respective faith group” (See report, page 41-42).

Jacobsen: As the study looked at prayers between October 6, 2003, and February 12, 2019, what does this length of time provide for the validity and reliability of the research and the sample size of the study at N=873?

Phelps Bondaroff: The sample of prayers we studied was considerably larger than that of the only other study to consider the subject, which looked at 31 prayers delivered before Speeches from the Throne. We examined every available prayer from October 6, 2003, and February 12, 2019 (N=873), which is a considerable number. Unfortunately, there are no records of any of the daily prayers delivered before this period, as the content of prayers delivered in the BC Legislature was not transcribed by Hansard.

Jacobsen: How does the Saguenay decision play into this research?

Phelps Bondaroff: The Saguenay decisions found that municipal councils may not begin their proceedings with a prayer. And the wording of the decision itself is very clear that this practice is discriminatory and exclusionary, and violated the state’s duty of religious neutrality. As noted by Justice Gascon in the ruling, “The state must instead remain neutral in this regard. This neutrality requires that the state neither favour nor hinder any particular belief, and the same holds true for non-belief. It requires that the state abstain from taking any position and thus avoid adhering to a particular belief.”

The ruling was very clear that: “[t]he state may not act in such a way as to create a preferential public space that favours certain religious groups and is hostile to others. It follows that the state may not, by expressing its own religious preference, promote the participation of believers to the exclusion of non-believers or vice versa.”

We explore the details of this ruling in the report, and I would encourage those who are interested in this critical case to read pages 16 – 17 of the report, and the subsequent discussion spanning pages 17 – 39.

The one question which remained unanswered by Saguenay, was whether or not parliamentary privilege could be used to shield the practice in provincial and federal legislatures. This question has yet to be answered definitively by the courts, and we explore both sides of this question on pages 39 – 42 of the report.

Jacobsen: The basic arguments against legislative prayer are the trivialization of a purportedly sacred act, the promotion of a specific denomination of denominations over others, the promotion of a particular religion over all other faith traditions, the inherent exclusivity of the acts, and the exclusion, in particular, against the non-religious. Anything else unstated as to the basic arguments in your opinion? 

Phelps Bondaroff: As you can see from the report, our treatment of the subject of arguments for and against legislative prayer was pretty thorough. I tried to canvass all of the major arguments against the practice. We also explored arguments in favour of continuing legislative prayer; many of these were addressed and rejected in the Saguenay decision. Furthermore, the idea that the practice of legislative prayer celebrates diversity, was contradicted by our findings.

Jacobsen: How have these basic arguments been employed in the past?

Phelps Bondaroff: The basic arguments for and against legislative prayer have been used by supporters to justify the continuation of this practice, and by proponents and opponents when these questions have been brought before the courts. For those who are interested, we outline some of the controversies surrounding legislative prayer across Canada, at all levels of government, on pages15 and 16 of the report. This is by no means a new issue.

Jacobsen: What was the methodology of the research?

Phelps Bondaroff: A short summary of the method we adopted is that we first employed a team of over 50 volunteers to transcribe all available prayers. In order to ensure reliable results, these were then coded by two coders, with a third checking for intercoder reliability. Prayers were then coded for a variety of factors including structure, content, and religiosity. Quantitative analysis was then used to identify trends within the data.

For those interested in the details of how we coded the individual prayers, as well as the kinds of statistical analysis we ran to analyze them, I would encourage them to read pages 45 – 61 of the report. We have also included all of the code we used in an appendix (see Appendix 5, pages 112 – 132 of the report). We will also be releasing the full data set of prayers to the public shortly, for those interested in exploring the prayers themselves.

Jacobsen: What were the key findings? Why those as highlights by the research group?

Phelps Bondaroff: I will defer to the executive summary of the report, where we highlight the key findings. We chose to analyze the prayers in the BC Legislature in the way that we did in order to better understand if the practice fairly reflects the diversity of BC, and inform inquiry into whether or not this practice is acceptable in a modern, multicultural province. There are plenty of other ways that the data could be analyzed, and this is one of the reasons we are releasing the full data set, to encourage people to explore the data even more fully.

Jacobsen: How can this be used in British Columbia into the future?

Phelps Bondaroff: One of the common arguments used in defense of legislative prayer is that it ‘celebrates diversity’ and is ‘inclusive.’ Our findings demonstrate that this is not the case. Furthermore, when we breakdown of religiosity of the prayers and the specific religions of the prayers (where we were able to identify the religion), we find that the content of the prayers delivered in the BC Legislature does not accurately reflect the views of British Columbians.

As we detail on page 69 of the report:

“Examining the prayers delivered in the BC Legislature from October 6, 2003 to February 12, 2019, the first thing that stands out is the overall religiosity of the prayers. In total, 71.2% of these prayers were classified as ‘religious.’ We can compare these numbers with the religious demographic information of BC to gauge the extent to which prayers delivered in the BC Legislature reflect the beliefs of British Columbians.”

When we do this, we find that many groups are underrepresented or completely unrepresented by the legislative prayers, non-believers in particular. As we noted in the report (page 70),

“We would be unjustified to conclude that the 27.5% of the prayers delivered in the BC Legislature that were identified as ‘secular’ reflected the views of non-believing British Columbians. To the contrary, we found that even the secular prayers adopted the structure of a ‘prayer,’ with 88.7% of secular prayers ending in ‘amen,’ compared with other prayers which ended in ‘amen’ 93.2% of the time. Simply because religious content is removed, minimized, or obscured, does not mean that a prayer reflects the beliefs of the irreligious, diverse as those beliefs are. And even if this were the case, non-believers would still be severely underrepresented. We can conclude therefore, that the argument that legislative prayer excludes non-believers is supported by our findings.”

“When we look at the sectarian prayers for which we were able to identify religion (188), 175 (93.1%) of these prayers were identified as ‘Christian.’ In this way, Christianity is considerably overrepresented in the content of the prayers delivered in the BC Legislature, and it overshadows other religious traditions. Every non-Christian religion, with the exception to Judaism, was under-represented by both sectarian prayers and all prayers in general. Furthermore, some significant faith traditions are not represented at all. Despite Sikhs representing around 4.7% of the population of BC, this religious tradition was never mentioned in the BC Legislature over the period covered by this study…. A lack of diversity is further indicated by a paucity of the inclusion of First Nations language and content, which comprises a mere 6% of prayers (including Throne Prayers), and is largely the use of single words, and also the lack of content from other languages (1.2% of prayers).”

The Acting Clerk is currently reviewing the practice and standard prayers delivered in the BC Legislature, and it is our hope that the findings of this report will serve to inform this process. Towards this end, we make a number of recommendations and suggestions at the conclusion of the report, and put forward the case that the practice of starting sittings of the BC Legislature with a prayer should be discontinued, or at the very least, reformed. For a full exploration of our recommendations, see pages 76 – 87 of the report. 

Jacobsen: How can these be replicated in other provinces or the territories?

Phelps Bondaroff: Given the diversity of practices in legislatures across the country one could only replicate a study of this nature in Nunavut and NWT. Sittings do not include a prayer in Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador. Other jurisdictions tend to read a standard prayer or prayers, see page 13 – 15 for full details of practices across the country.

Jacobsen: What can be done with the research? What is recommended?

Phelps Bondaroff: It is our hope that this research will help inform the current review of the practice in the BC Legislature, and that it will demonstrate that the practice of beginning sittings with a prayer should be ended. We are encouraging people in BC to write to their MLA to let them know that they want this archaic and discriminatory practice ended, and they can easily do so by visiting the BC Humanist Association website.

Jacobsen: Any research projects to follow from this into the future?

Phelps Bondaroff: This project is part of a broader research program that I am coordinating for the BC Humanist Association.  We are currently investigating a number of other areas where the separation of religion and government has blurred in the province. For example, I am currently wrapping up a study we conducted of the practice of beginning municipal councils with prayers – despite the Saguenay ruling, a number of municipalities across the province included prayers as part of their inaugural meeting in 2018. We are also investigating issues relating to permissive tax exemptions for places of worship, and a host of other issues pertaining to separation of religion and government.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Phelps Bondaroff.

[1] Bueckert, C., Hill, R., Parisotto, M., & Roberts, M. (2017). “Religion, faith and spirituality in the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia.” Canadian Parliamentary Review, (Spring), 25-29.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-booksfree or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott:

Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du QuébecAtheist FreethinkersCentral Ontario Humanist AssociationComox Valley HumanistsGrey Bruce HumanistsHalton-Peel Humanist CommunityHamilton HumanistsHumanist Association of LondonHumanist Association of OttawaHumanist Association of TorontoHumanists, Atheists and Agnostics of ManitobaOntario Humanist SocietySecular Connextions SeculaireSecular Humanists in CalgarySociety of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph)Thunder Bay HumanistsToronto OasisVictoria Secular Humanist Association.

Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an AgnostikerAmerican Atheists,American Humanist AssociationAssociação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and AgnosticsAtheist Alliance InternationalAtheist Alliance of AmericaAtheist CentreAtheist Foundation of AustraliaThe Brights MovementCenter for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist IrelandCamp Quest, Inc.Council for Secular HumanismDe Vrije GedachteEuropean Humanist FederationFederation of Indian Rationalist AssociationsFoundation Beyond BeliefFreedom From Religion FoundationHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist InternationalHumanist Association of GermanyHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist Society of ScotlandHumanists UKHumanisterna/Humanists SwedenInternet InfidelsInternational League of Non-Religious and AtheistsJames Randi Educational FoundationLeague of Militant AtheistsMilitary Association of Atheists and FreethinkersNational Secular SocietyRationalist InternationalRecovering From ReligionReligion News ServiceSecular Coalition for AmericaSecular Student AllianceThe Clergy ProjectThe Rational Response SquadThe Satanic TempleThe Sunday AssemblyUnited Coalition of ReasonUnion of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

Image Credit: Dr. Teale Phelps Bondaroff.

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