Ranil Prasad “is a fourth year political science student at UBC, where he studies the relationship between party platforms and legislative activities. In his spare time, he is the Premier of the non-partisan BC Youth Parliament, a youth service organization in which youth engagement and community serviced are emphasized. He also hosts (extremely exclusive!) dinner parties and is an avid Canucks fan. From July to October he worked on campaigns with the BCHA.” Here we talk about municipal prayers.
*Interview conducted on June 17, 2020.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, when we are talking about municipal prayers, what is defined as a prayer in this context? Why focus on municipal in particular?
Ranil Prasad: First, the definition of a prayer is much looser than one would expect. In that, it is more of a pornography definition of “I know it when I see it.” It is important for municipalities because they do not have parliamentary privilege. They do not have the privilege to say what they want pretty much. For example, in a council meeting, they can be sued compared to the federal and provincial levels of government. It is one of the reasons for suing the City of Saguenay, which applies at the municipal level.
Jacobsen: You are doing this through the BCHA and at the nation-wide level. What is the importance of organizational backing? What is the importance of doing this study across Canada to challenge this unfairness?
Prasad: So, something we like to say, “Humanism doesn’t end at the Rocky Mountains.” It is not in our interest or the members’ interests to not deal with these things or egregious violations of religion and government in other cities. We know there are some local people who would like to challenge it. It is our rationale for it. Also, we want to know what is happening in the rest of the country because it is in our interest as well. On institutional or organizational backing, we have built a reputation for ourselves based on the research output and legitimacy. We have a good reputation with other humanist organizations and with the media. So, we have added legitimacy through these.
Jacobsen: What are some of the – in terms of the research at it stands now – more egregious cases of violations of the Saguenay decision, for instance?
Prasad: Yes, it is interesting. This is urban bias coming through. However, I thought smaller municipalities were the ones violating it, and the larger ones were at the forefront. I have noticed a lot of large municipalities are the ones violating it and trying to use mental gymnastics to get over it. The most egregious is Hamilton, Ontario. They are a workers’ city with a strong progressive history. But they started off in a prayer. Interestingly, Hamilton prayers are overwhelmingly Christian and overwhelmingly by men. They did try to protect it. It is interesting. They know it is wrong. Frankly, they were trying o get out of it.
Jacobsen: What are some of the mental gymnastics, some of the excuses?
Prasad: They invite guests into the Council [Laughing].
Prasad: I don’t think the court would agree this is a way to get out of the responsibility [Laughing].
Jacobsen: [Laughing] What are some phrases or terms used in some of the prayers, which make them more or less Christian in terms of the output?
Prasad: A lot of this is based on key words. Things about Jesus, the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. These are key words to see if these are Christian are not, in other words. They invite ‘Pastor Smith’ from the ‘Second Baptist Church.’ These are signals.
Jacobsen: What are suggestive alternatives that would not make them in violation of the Saguenay decision?
Prasad: Number one, do not begin the meeting with a prayer, they should follow the law. Otherwise, it is illegal. If you want to follow the law, they can begin the meetings in a moment of silence. It can mean something different for everyone else. Also, we can give land acknowledgements. It is not something as in vogue in other parts of the country as in Vancouver. It is a good conversation to have; one of us should be leading it, for Indigenous voices regarding colonization. It is something for them to consider.
Jacobsen: When it comes to the number of municipalities studied, how many are we talking about here?
Prasad: So, there’s a lot [Laughing].
Prasad: We’re doing the top 50 municipalities in every province across the country. It can be weird sometimes. Nova Scotia only has 48 municipalities in the entire place.
Jacobsen: When it comes to the magnitude of the number of municipalities studied by others and yourself, what are some of the most egregious cases, but the trend lines noticed throughout the country too?
Prasad: Cities like Hamilton and Halifax are violating the Saguenay decision.
Jacobsen: What about other than Ontario as the worst and Hamilton as the most egregious?
Prasad: There are differences with the inaugural council meeting session. Inaugural sessions are the first council meeting happening after an election. They’ll have a bagpiper bagpipe people into a room with much pomp and circumstance. You have people talking about different things. That’s what is interesting because most of the prayers happen at inaugural sessions. It is a way people can solemnize the occasion to add to the pomp and circumstance of the meeting. So, the vast majority of them happen in inaugural sessions.
Jacobsen: What about challenges to those majority inaugural session municipal prayers? In other words, what has been the reaction to challenges? What is the success rate if you happen to know it?
Prasad: I do not know if any municipalities have been challenged. Most quietly stopped doing it. They recognized that it was illegal, and should stop. I don’t know if any have had a Human Rights Commission challenge or lawsuit against them.
Jacobsen: Would citizens be able to take those formal challenges to court?
Prasad: I am pretty sure. If they want to bring a court case to directly challenge Saguenay through a formal lawsuit, then the municipality would have to stop.
Jacobsen: To be clear, the Saguenay decision set a precedent putting the challenge on the side of people who would be more freethought oriented. It places the side of the court, in general, or the side of the law on the side of freethinkers.
Prasad: Yes, absolutely. So, it was stated as a democratic imperative.
Prasad: [Laughing] If we do not have the state neutrality, then we don’t really have a true democracy. From Ontario, I have the list. The real big ones, Markham, Kitchener, Richmond Hill, Burlington, and Hamilton are the big ones.
Jacobsen: For the readers who may not know, who are the worst in all of the other provinces and the territories as a shorthand of the research for them?
Prasad: Most of them are small towns. It would be, in British Columbia, Victoria, for sure. That’s the most relevant. All of the big cities in Alberta with the worst as Wetaskiwin. Population like 12,000 or something. Saskatchewan, it is pretty good – mostly small towns. And most small towns do pretty good. The big place is Kindersley. In Manitoba, it is definitely Winnipeg. The biggest, as noted, in Ontario is Hamilton. We skipped Quebec and went to Nova Scotia. We are looking for French-speaking volunteers.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Ranil.
Prasad: No problem!
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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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 Alliance, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
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These invocations are a waste of time and therefore taxpayer money. It comes down to marking territory. They should relegate it all to once a year at the opening ceremony. There would need to be a framework to insure fairness with a waiting list. And include First Nations.