Defending Legislative Prayer in British Columbia
We are blessed to live in a province that recognizes the importance of prayer. The Standing Orders of the BC Legislature mandate that morning or afternoon sessions open with prayer. The Speaker of the House invites an MLA to offer one of five standard prayers developed by the BC Legislature or to offer a prayer of their own devising. In practice, about half of the prayers offered in the Legislature are based upon the standard prayers, while half are written by MLAs. Although these prayers are short – the average length is 89 words – they nevertheless demonstrate the religious history of British Columbia’s parliamentary tradition.
This freedom to offer a personal prayer on behalf of parliament is unique to British Columbia and Nunavut. The legislatures of Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Ontario recite a version of the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of the day’s proceedings. (In Ontario, this followed by an Indigenous, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Baha’i or Sikh prayer on a rotating basis). Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories use set non-denominational prayers. Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador do not permit prayer within their legislatures.
The BC Humanist Association (BCHA) recently published a report, A House of Prayer, examining the legislative prayers offered from 2003-2019. The report culminates with the recommendation that this “exclusionary and discriminatory” practice be abolished in the BC Legislature.
Of course, it would be surprising if the BCHA came to any other conclusion. After all, they define humanism as “the idea that you can be good without god” and their goal is to purge belief in God from public life.
However, knowing that God hears the prayers of His people and knowing that our prayers have the power to benefit even an unbelieving society, I believe the practice of prayer in the Legislature is worth defending. With this in mind, I would like to respond to the two overarching arguments made by the BCHA, that legislative prayer is both discriminatory and exclusionary.
BCHA Argument #1: Legislative prayer is discriminatory because it promotes specific denominations or a specific religion over others. Christianity, in particular, is over-represented.
Rebuttal: The BCHA’s argument that legislative prayer is discriminatory and disproportionately favours Christianity is based on a misrepresentation of the facts. Below is a chart produced within the BCHA’s report:
The BCHA argues that legislative prayer supports Christianity over all other religions, citing the fact that 93.1% of all religious prayers that can be easily identified with a specific religion (sectarian prayers) are manifestly Christian. What the report ignores, however, is that only 20.2% of all prayers are explicitly Christian. Another 49.5% of all prayers are non-sectarian, meaning that they acknowledge the existence of a deity but do not identify the deity. A further 27.5% of all prayers are secular, meaning they did not recognize any deity.
Using this measure, Christianity and all other identifiable religions are under-represented rather than over-represented in prayers delivered in the Legislature. Although Christians make up 44.6% of the population of the province, Christian prayers made up only 20.2% of all prayers within the Legislature.
Even if Christianity or any other religious faith was over-represented in legislative prayer, such an over-representation is not an adequate reason to abandon legislative prayer. MLAs in BC are elected to proportionately represent the political views of the citizenry first and foremost, not their religious or demographic characteristics. For example, younger, poorer, or less educated individuals are not proportionately represented in the BC Legislature, yet these are not disproportionalities that society finds discriminatory. They are simply a by-product of the democratic process.
BCHA Argument #2: Legislative prayer is exclusionary because it excludes non-believers and believers whose faith traditions do not include prayer.
Rebuttal: Let’s clarify what type of exclusion the BCHA claims is happening. No one is excluded from being present in the chamber during the prayer. No one is excluded from offering a prayer for any reason, and non-religious MLAs are welcome to lead their colleagues in a moment of silent reflection or share a secular quote. No one is excluded from participating in the prayer from another religious tradition. There is no exclusion in the traditional sense of the word.
Rather, the BCHA is redefining exclusion to mean that an individual MLA’s personal beliefs may not be represented by the collective practice of prayer in the Legislature. An atheist is thus “excluded” from the practice of legislative prayer because the collective action of praying to a deity does not reflect his personal beliefs. By the same reasoning, a Christian MLA is “excluded” when a secular humanist reflection or meditation is offered in the Legislature.
A Christian Argument for Prayer
Reformed Christians – as well as members of other denominations and faiths – should continue to support his manifestation of religious conviction in the public square. We believe in the sovereignty of God over all aspects of creation, including our civil government. He is the one who ultimately controls our provincial government and society, and it is certainly appropriate to call upon His blessing in the actions of the Legislature. Prayer recognizes the reality of the presence and power of God.
The current practice of prayer within the BC Legislature also recognizes the importance of the public manifestation of personal religious convictions. True faith is more than just a personal relationship with God. True faith also applies this faith to all activities, including the realm of politics and public service. While the BCHA may seek to contain faith and religion exclusively in the private sphere, it is impossible for those grafted into Christ not to exhibit public fruits of faith. This public manifestation of faith includes voting based on biblical truths, treating others respectfully as image-bearers of God, and recognizing God’s authority over all things in public prayer.
The preamble of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, our national anthem, and the inscriptions on the national parliament buildings reference Canada’s religious heritage, which is predominantly a Christian heritage. The BCHA’s attempt to relegate prayer to private settings is an attempt to further erase the religious heritage of our country and province.
Rather than being ashamed of the practice of prayer, British Columbia should be proud that it gives its MLAs more freedom to craft and offer prayers within the Legislature than any other province. This freedom recognizes the rightful place of religion in the public forum and does indeed recognize the diversity of belief throughout the province.