OWEN SOUND, ONT. - Grey County is facing a court challenge to its long tradition of opening county council meetings with a recital of The Lord’s Prayer.
Peter Ferguson of Kimberley, Ont., said he served legal papers on the county Monday in his bid to end what he calls the “illegal” practice. The papers call for a response by the county at a Superior Court of Justice hearing on Oct. 11, Ferguson said.
An affidavit sworn Monday by Ferguson states that 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.”
And while the document says Ferguson does not believe “in the Christian saviour God, nor any other god or gods, nor in any supernatural being or ‘higher power’ whatever,” he said in an interview that he is not on an anti-Christian campaign.
“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.”
Both he and his lawyer, in correspondence with the county, refer to a 1999 ruling by the Ontario Court of Appeal that reciting the Lord’s Prayer at the start of council meeting in Penetanguishene, Ont., violates religious freedom and is unconstitutional.
Asked why he is only acting so many years later, Ferguson said he only became “sensitized to the issue a year and a half ago,” when Coun. Colleen Purdon questioned Owen Sound, Ont., council’s practice of reciting the Lord’s Prayer before meetings.
The city has since brought in a policy to invite members of various faith groups to recite a prayer before council meetings or for councillors to observe a moment of silent reflection if no one is available.
Ferguson’s affidavit notes he first requested Grey County to stop praying before meetings in an e-mail on May 13, 2011. A letter from his lawyer, Daniel Mayo of Carp, Ont., dated June 6, 2012, gave the county 30 days to confirm it would “cease and desist from illegal prayer.”
Failing such an assurance, “an injunction to restrain such practice, monetary damages for the breaches of my client’s Charter rights, plus legal costs will all be sought,” the letter says.
Mayo, Ferguson said, is a director of Secular Ontario, a group which is supporting his cause. According to its website, Secular Ontario “is a non-profit corporation formed in 2006 to promote and defend the secular and civil nature of Ontario society.” In 2007 it identified Owen Sound as one of 18 “rogue” municipalities whose councils continued to recite the Lord’s Prayer before meetings.