Ask Dr. P.B. 4: “The Arbiters of Faith”

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By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Dr. Teale Phelps Bondaroff has been a community organizer for more than 15 years. He has been active in Saanich municipal politics. He earned a PhD in Politics and International Studies from the University of Cambridge and two BAs from the University of Calgary in Political Science and International Relations, respectively. He is a Board Member of the Greater Victoria Placemaking Network. He owns and operates a research consultancy called The Idea Tree. He is a New Democrat, politically, and is the President of the Saanich-Gulf Islands NDP riding association. He founded OceansAsia as a marine conservation organization devoted to combating illegal fishing and wildlife crime. Here we talk about “The Arbiters of Faith: Legislative Assembly of BC Entanglement with Religious Dogma Resulting from Legislative Prayer” and recent research work of the BCHA.


*Note, this interview occurred before the ‘Arbiters of Faith’ article was published and before the Clerk of the BC Legislature completed their review of prayer in the BC Legislature. The article discussed in this interview has subsequently been published in the journal of Secularism & Nonreligion.*

Scott Jacobsen: So, you submitted a report entitled, “The Arbiters of Faith: Legislative Assembly of BC Entanglement with Religious Dogma Resulting from Legislative Prayer.” What was the purpose of this paper and what are some of the general overview points of this paper report?

Dr. Teale Phelps Bondaroff: A lot of people are not familiar with the fact that each daily sitting at the B.C. legislature starts with a prayer and it is delivered by a member of the Legislative Assembly, or on days there’s a speech from the throne, by a guest from the public. So, the BCHA did a comprehensive analysis of these prayers. People can read about our interview and the content of that report in the House of Prayers Report.

One of the things that’s interesting is that in BC, MLAs are asked to deliver a prayer. They have the option of either delivering a prayer of their own devising or reading a prayer from a list of sample prayers that is provided by legislative staff. When we did the analysis in the House of Prayer study, we found that the MLAs were selecting a prayer from the list of sample prayers 50 percent, half, of the time,

So, this got us wondering about the list of sample prayers. When you look at the list of sample prayers, you see three that are ‘nonsectarian’ and two that are ‘secular.’ By this I mean that three of them are overtly religious — they mention “God,” and other religious language. And the two secular ones seem religiously affiliated, but they do not mention gods and they’re more of a thanksgiving thing.

The background in this article is … at the end of 2019, the Office of the Clerk of the Legislative Assembly in British Columbia was conducting a review of the process and procedures around prayers in the legislature. We submitted a comprehensive 138-page report, the House of Prayers Report. In it, we suggested that a starting each session of the BC Legislature with a prayer is not a good idea. The report outlines a lot of reasons why we shouldn’t be doing this: It is unconstitutional, potentially. It excludes people. It diminishes and otherwise trivializes the sacred act, and other arguments along these lines. We submitted the report as our input to the Clerk’s review process.
 We are aware that the sample prayers were part of the review process conducted by the office of the clerk. The Clerk was reviewing the sample list likely because these five prayers were not representative of the views of British Columbians, or reflected the views of only a narrow band of British Columbians. And so part of the process that the Office of the Clerk is currently undertaking is a revision of this list.

After we submit our report, we got to thinking: Is it possible for the Office of the Clerk to create a list of sample prayers, both practically and constitutionally? So, the Arbiters of Faith article seeks to answer this question. 
 I suppose that this is a really long preamble to a shorter answer, which is we wanted to know whether it is possible, both practically and constitutionally, for the Office of the Clerk to create a list of sample prayers that they provide to MLAs to deliver at the beginning of each sitting of legislature. 
 In the article, we identified practical and constitutional hurdles that we do not think could be overcome, which suggests that A) you shouldn’t have a sample list of prayers because it would violate the state’s duty of religious neutrality, and B) making that list is an incredibly complicated and complex process.

Each decision throughout the process has both constitutional and practical hurdles to overcome. That’s why I thought I might walk you through some of those challenges so that people will get an idea of how difficult it is for the state to amend practices around legislative prayer, rather than simply abolishing the practice.

So here’s a summary of the concerns we raise in the article. The Clerk faces challenges and decisions at every stage of the process. There are challenges of identifying religions and religious groups in British Columbia and challenges with selecting a reasonable number of religious groups to ask to add a prayer to the list. Then, even at that point, it is incredibly difficult and problematic to identify which prayer should be included on the list. And even who in particular to ask to submit a prayer. Ultimately there are practical and constitutional problems at every stage of the review process. 
 To begin with, there is the question of what constitutes a religion. This is a question that is debated heavily in academia, anthropology, and religious studies. There’s no real answer to this question. What you often see in legal jurisprudence is the “I know it when I see it” approach. Unfortunately, this is prone to bias.

When people say ‘they know it when they see it,’ they tend to be biased towards religions with which they are familiar. This makes sense, but there is a lot of potential bias there and some religion will be oversampled. In doing this, on relying on this possible approach, you’re validating one religion at the possible expense of others.

It puts the government, and individual bureaucrats making decisions about what is or is not a religion, saying something like “Okay, Baptist, that’s a religion. Protestantism, that’s a religion. But Eckankar, Scientology, those aren’t religions.” So, some are validated over others.

That’s a problem, because the state has a duty of religious neutrality, as established in 2015 [in the Saguenay descision]. You’re not being neutral when you’re saying this belief system is a religion, and this one isn’t.

And there are also really no grounds for this basis, or any laws in Canada, that establish a clear definition of what religion is. We explore some complicated aspects of this in the article. A lot of people aren’t aware of this: Canada doesn’t have a definition of what a religion is.

As a result, you get this weird situation where, for example, CRA [Canadian Revenue Agency] says that it has a rough definition of what religions are: It is quite circular, and it excludes non-theistic religion.

For example, there was a court case a little while ago [the Church of Atheism of Central Canada v. MNR], where the judge admitted that the current usage and practices around definitions of religion in Canada exclude the non-theistic religions like Buddhism or other religions that do not have a defined ‘god.’ That’s a bit of a problem if you’re trying to say, “We’re neutral,” but you’re not being neutral when you do that. You’re saying, “We’re neutral, but only for only a narrow band of faith traditions,” which is not neutrality.

So, you have a situation where the state is put in the position of having to try to arbitrate religious dogma. In a 2004 decision, a court decision around some of these issues [Syndicat Northcrest v. Amselem], the judge decided that it is not the role of the state, nor should it be the role of the state, to arbitrate on religious dogma. Otherwise the state becomes overly entangled in these religious issues, to the point where they could be put in the position of arbitrating matters relating to religious practices or theology.

Imagine a situation where parishioners at one church might take other parishioners from that same church to court because the practice of delivering communion was changed. One group might want to be kneeling when they receive communion, the other group might want to be standing when they receive communion. It is not the role of courts to be adjudicating this kind of matter. People can probably see how this unnecessarily entangles the government with religion.

So, the first problem is that we do not know what religion is. It’s unclear in law, and there are a lot of examples of this in jurisprudence. Again, there’s no legislation defining what religion is in Canada.

Let’s say we could overcome that first hurdle, the next question comes down to which religions make the cut for inclusion in the consultation process and in the final list of sample prayers. Because there is a vast number of religions and some people would say, quite accurately, that given the diversity of beliefs out there, every single person has a slightly different religious belief. Two people sitting in the pews of the same church, for example, likely don’t agree entirely on every aspect of that religion, and their views may differ in minor or significant ways. Ultimately, we have a situation where every single person’s religion is unique.

But this aside, you also have other complicating factors. Let’s pretend we’re going to try to pick which religions to ask to submit prayers for the sample prayer list. How does the state go about picking which religions/religious groups to approach?

The government could try reaching out to the religious groups with which they are most familiar. The state knows a couple of religions are common, and members of the bureaucracy are likely familiar with a decent number of religions. So they could call representatives of the religions that they are familiar with, and ask to get their input.
 The first issue here is, are they asking non-religious groups? Now in this case, the office of the Clerk asked the BCHA to submit sample prayers and to participate in the review process, and this is not a common practice. It’s very often the case that when there’s a consultation with faith leaders, that leaders of nonreligious groups are not consulted. This may make sense on first blush, if the consultation is with members of various faith traditions it could seem strange to include the nonreligious, but then a huge swath of the population is excluded and the results would be biased in favour of religious believers. This is particularly relevant here, as the risk would be that there would be no non-religious or secular invocations on the list. There is an inherent faith bias.

The approach of just reaching out to faith traditions with which the government is familiar is very subjective. Here is an interesting fact that a lot of people may not be aware of. The federal government, and provincial government, has an ‘order of precedence’ list, which is basically a list of how do you introduce people at a banquet or a state funeral. For example, it starts with the Queen and it works its way down through other heads of state. Strangely, this list puts representatives of faith communities above judges, senators, and members of parliament. This is in and of itself an interesting bias in favor of religious groups. This list also doesn’t include details on which religions make the cut and which religious figures would be introduced before judges, senators and MPs, so it doesn’t offer much guidance as to helping the government decide which religions make the cut.

Instead of using ‘familiarity’ the government could instead use demographics, but this approach is also fraught with challenges. There has to be some cutoff, so the government ultimately has to decide how many believers are needed for a religion to make the cut. Could the government set a threshold of 0.5% of the population? So in other words, if 0.5% of the population follow a religion we include them as one of our sample prayer list.

But there are problems with this approach. There’s the issue of how we go about asking questions about religion and religious affiliation in the census. So, for example, in the census, they will ask people, “Which religion are you affiliated with?” But that doesn’t necessarily track with beliefs — with people’s actual beliefs. It just identifies their affiliation.

A while ago there was a survey of Quebecers, for example, which is cited in the paper: 75% of Quebecers were identified as Catholic and only 28% said they strongly believe in a God. So, this is a bit of a problem. People can culturally affiliate with a religion, even if their beliefs don’t track with all the beliefs of that religio. Secular Jews are a good example of this.

But there are other complications and problems with the Census as well. There are 70 sects of Christianity included in the census, and some estimates suggest there are 33,000 Protestant denominations. However, in the census there are no subcategories for Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam. But, for example, there’s a huge difference between Orthodox Judaism and Reformed Judaism. And this is also the case with different sects in Islam or Buddhism. So there are different levels of granularity; is the Clerk going to include one prayer from every Protestant sect and one Jewish prayer? You can start seeing how this really breaks down both practically and constitutionally.

Because the government is also making a lot of problematic choices: “This is a valid religion and this isn’t a valid religion,” or, “This is a group worthy of recognition. This is a group that is not worthy of recognition.” “This sect difference should be considered. This sect difference should not be considered.” And the government lacks a basis for making any of these choices.

So instead of familiarly or demographics, the Clerk could look at the demographics of the legislature. So, for example, the Clerk could say, “Okay, 12% of the legislature identify as Christian. We’re going to have 12% of the sample prayers being Christian prayers,” and so on, and so forth.

The problem there, of course, is that this is incredibly invasive and an issue with privacy, as the Clerk would have to ask personal questions of MLAs about their religious beliefs. And second of all, the Clerk would have to ask MLAs constantly, because people’s religious views change over time. It is not like someone is born a Christian and remains a Christian, or is born of reformed Jew and stays a reformed Jew their whole life. People’s views change over time. So the Clerk would have to be constantly asking MLAs, or at the very least do so after every election or by-election.

So these are some of the challenges associated with selecting which religions you solicit prayers from, but there are further complications. The next question that needs to be tackled it “Who do we ask to submit prayers?” Now, it is somewhat easy, for example, with religions like Catholicism, because you could ask a archbishop for prayer, but for less centralized and hierarchical religions, the situation is more complicated.

If you have religions that do not have a hierarchy, then the question of who you ask to submit a prayer is a challenge. If multiple members of a religious tradition submit prayers, the government/Clerk have no ability to decide between them, because, as we’ve discussed, the state has no ability to arbitrate matters of dogma and it can’t pick one subset over another without violating its duty of religious neutrality.

Consider, for example, a Reform Jewish Congregation from Victoria submits a prayer and then the Reform Synagogue in Vancouver also submits a prayer. The state would have no ability to arbitrate between those two prayers. How could it? The BC Government is in no position to say which sample prayer best captures the beliefs of Reform Judaism, and short of issues relating to punctuation and grammar has no basis for electing one prayer over the other, and if it did so, it would violate its duty of religious neutrality.

Moving beyond differentiating between congregations, you have other problems relating to who you actually ask to provide a sample prayer — do you ask people in positions of leadership within a congregation or members? A prayer selected by a priest, for example, may not be the same prayer selected by a lay person of the same faith. For many faith traditions, asking people in positions of leadership means asking men, as many faith traditions restrict or prohibit women from holding certain forms of priesthood or positions of their clergy. This excludes a wide range of perspectives, to say the least, and is strongly biased in favour of prayers favoured by men in positions of leadership within a faith tradition.

Assuming that all of these problems can be addressed, both practically and constitutionally, there is the outstanding matter of deciding who to ask to submit non-religious invocations.

A 2016 Insights West survey found that 69% of British Columbians claimed to not practice or participate in a particular religion or faith. Of those, 44% believed in a higher power or said they believed in a higher power. How do we possibly survey this group to ensure that their views are reflected in the sample list of prayers that are being offered by MLAs and delivered in front of the B.C. legislature? You have atheists, you have humanists, you have agnostics, but you also have people who have ‘spiritual beliefs’ or religious practices. It is a Herculean task.

As we argue in the paper, it is virtually impossible for the Office of the Clerk to derive a list a prayer for nonbelievers. First, because some of them probably won’t contribute it; second, because this is such a diverse group and the government would struggle to identify organizations that capture all of this diversity of views.

Due to the myriad of different religious sects and the diversity of beliefs among the nonreligious, the government could revert to soliciting prayers from the general public. This is one possible solution to some of the issues we outline in the paper, but it still comes with the problem of how the government could possibly pick which prayers to use from any submissions it receives, as doing so would again violate the state’s duty of religious neutrality and its prohibition on arbitrating matters of dogma.

The sheer volume of sample prayers that would likely be submitted would further complicate the ‘public submission’ approach. When the Ontario Legislative Assembly explored the issue of no longer starting their daily sessions with the Lord’s Prayer, they received 11,000 responses from the public and it basically broke their internet and their email system.

Handling any volume of public submissions would be a challenge for the Office of the Clerk, which only has a few staff and has other responsibilities to the BC Legislature. With this approach, we would basically be asking them to first sift through thousands of emails submissions while they lack the ability to choose between any of them.

Ultimately, as we argue in the paper, the Office of the Clerk faces practical challenges to selecting and drafting a list of sample prayers.

In addition to these practical issues, you have a huge constitutional challenge at every single step. Every time a bureaucrat tries to make a decision about who to ask, what to ask, what to include, they’re making choices that violate their duty of religious neutrality. This is a huge problem.

In the paper, we strongly advocated that legislative prayer be abolished for a wide range of reasons, but if is to continue, the idea of having a sample prayer sheet is problematic and should be abolished.

The BC Legislature should not have a sample sheet of prayers because that violates the state’s duty for religious neutrality.

Jacobsen: How do you define a religion?

Phelps Bondaroff: I do not think I would. I tend to define it more broadly, but any time you set up a barrier or criteria, you can find a counterexample of a religion that does not meet that criteria. If you say that a religion need a god or gods, for example, one need only point to a non-theistic religion that challenges this criteria.

I do not think it is worth noting is there are some states that have set definitions of religion. Obviously, there are problems with this approach as well. Having a set definition does allow you to hold up a belief system to it and ask “does this meet the definition,” however there are still problems. Presuming that your definition is not biased, which I think would be quite impossible to do, a set definition would allow you to at least overcome some of the hurdles that we present in the paper. But you would end up excluding many faith traditions that do not meet the definition, and I could foresee the situation arising whereby the definition would be either so broad as to render it useless, or too narrow such that it excludes too many belief systems. There are many hurdles and challenges when it comes to defining what constitutes a religion.

Jacobsen: Will there be some criteria at a minimum for inclusion as a religion without a formal set, complete comprehensive definition of religion?

Phelps Bondaroff: I can tell you with some of the legal cases I’ve talked about. But I think that the problem is that you can always find it outliers, and too many of the definitions I’ve seen become circular.

Jacobsen: And that’s why we have typing and editing.

Phelps Bondaroff: So, for example, the Canada Revenue Agency’s definition can be found in some of their policies on charities. They say that to ‘advance religion in a charitable sense,’ means to promote the spiritual teachings of a religious body and maintain doctrines and spiritual observances on which those teachings are based. There must be an element of theistic worship, which means the worship of a deity or deities in the spiritual sense.

Okay, so, let’s explore the problems of that definition. First of all, ‘the spiritual teachings of a religious body,’ that implies that there must be some organization or entity that organizes the religious teachings. This would exclude a lot of different faith traditions that don’t have central organized structures and that just follow teachings. Or the term body refers to an informal group, in which case determining the limits of that group could be a challenge.

This brings up the question of belief versus practice. We can’t see inside people’s heads. We can look at how they practice religion and then use this as an example of their beliefs, but people practice religions in different ways.

There’s been some really interesting American court cases on this front. There was a case concerning the wearing of religious symbols in prisons and the idea of folk religion. The court case was about prisoners who wanted the right to wear a cross. There were lots of concerns by the prison officials about whether this should be allowed, as they saw the wearing of religious symbols as potentially leading to violence and potentially serving as a gang sign.

there is no provision within the Bible that says, “You have to wear cross around your neck.” But a lot of people do. It is an important part of their faith tradition. Thus, wearing a cross around your neck isn’t a religious requirement written down in a book — like dietary or clothing requirements — but it is part of what is often referred to as ‘folk religion.’

So, if you were simply interpreting the Canada Revenue Agency’s policy, it is unclear what is meant by “the spiritual teachings of the religious body” and where we might find these. Do we only look at things that are written down in religious books? There’s no requirement, for example, Christians wear a cross around their neck. But that’s a common practice.

There are other questions that flow from this, like how does one interpret what is actually written down in a religious book? And who gets to make this interpretation? Which books should be consulted? Which text do you pick?

And then, of course, why rely on texts at all. Relying on rules written in religious books is necessarily biased in favour of text based religions at the exclusion of ones that might rely on oral traditions.

There are other problems with the CRA definition as well — it emphasized theistic worship. Whether this refers to a deity or deities is beside the point that it is biased in favour of theistic religions over non-theistic religions or religious practices and faith traditions.

Another problematic aspect is that there must be an element of ‘theistic worship,’ which means that worship of a deity or deities in a spiritual sense. What does that even mean? This is basically creating a more complex definition by introducing terms that are even less well-defined. I think most people would agree that defining what is ‘spiritual’ is even more complicated than defining ‘religion.’

I think there are many more papers to be written about definitions of religion, so not to go on for too long, but the idea is that any time you try to establish these kinds of criteria, to define what constitutes a religion, you can find an outlier and at a certain point a definition either includes everything or includes too narrow a range of things.

So I do not know if I would hazard a definition of what constitutes religion, because I think anything I would offer would have limitations and it would necessarily be based on my own personal biases and interests. I have looked at various religions around the world, but I’m sure I’ve missed many and have not had a chance to study others in any depth. As a result, any definition of religion I could come up with would be incomplete. I should add that it’s okay for an academic to toy with different definitions while trying to explore an issue, or to explore and establish parameters in order to present a coherent argument in a paper, but it is not okay for the state to do this because there are constitutional prohibitions on the state doing so.

Jacobsen: And so, what are some of the next steps from Arbiters of Faith paper at this point?

Phelps Bondaroff: From a practical perspective, we’re finishing up the peer review. I wanted to underscore how important peer review can be. Peer review is an amazing way of producing more rigorous research and strengthen existing work and really engaging other scholars.

When it is done, it will be published in the journal of Secularism & Nonreligion. I also hope that we have made a sufficiently strong case such that we are able to convince the Office of the Clerk to abandon their practice of creating and offering a list of sample prayers to MLAs. I hope that the B.C. legislature to completely abandons the use of sample prayers in the first place.

I would prefer, obviously, that the practice of opening sessions of the BC Legislature with prayer would be ended, but if it must continue there shouldn’t be a sample list, because any use of a sample is a further violation of the state’s duty of religious neutrality.

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


Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight Publishing and Editor-in-Chief of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal (ISSN 2369–6885). Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and the advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.


*Associates and resources listing last updated May 31, 2020.*

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.


Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.


Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists, American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.


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Image Credit: Teale Phelps Bondaroff.

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