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Mayor told to follow court order, stop praying at council meetings

Saguenay, Que., Mayor Jean Tremblay has been served with a lawyer's letter demanding he obey a court order and stop reciting a prayer at the opening of council meetings.

Ivanoh Demers/La Presse/Ivanoh Demers/La Presse

A Quebec mayor's crusade to preserve a prayer and Catholic symbols at his council meetings has come up against a backlash, some of it channelled through YouTube.

A secular group has served the outspoken mayor of Saguenay, Jean Tremblay, with a lawyer's letter demanding that he obey a court order and immediately stop reciting a prayer at the opening of council meetings.

And a citizens' collective in Saguenay, a city of 145,000 north of Quebec City, has launched a YouTube video in which people appear one by one to say the religiously devout mayor isn't speaking in their name. The group, Citoyens pour la démocratie à Saguenay, said the mayor is inflaming tensions by launching a campaign to preserve the prayer.

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"If we want to be open as a society and get everyone to participate, we have to keep our institutions secular," said Stéphane Dufour, a spokesman for the group. "We didn't elect Mr. Tremblay for his religious convictions."

Saguenay has become the latest flashpoint in the debate over religion in an increasingly diverse and secular province. A Quebec rights tribunal last month ordered the mayor and the city to pay an atheist $30,000 in damages after he complained about a brief prayer recited at the outset of council meetings. The tribunal also ordered the removal of a crucifix and statue of the Sacred Heart from council rooms.

Such Christian symbols, touchstones of Quebec's Catholic heritage, are still fixtures in some public institutions in the province. Both the Quebec National Assembly and Montreal City Council chambers are dominated by a crucifix.

Mr. Tremblay said in an interview that he has referred the lawyer's letter from the secular Mouvement laïque québécois to the city's lawyer; the group gives the mayor 48 hours to agree to abide by the tribunal's order or face legal action. Meanwhile, the mayor said he has already collected $118,000 in public donations for his legal battle to challenge the tribunal's order at the Quebec Court of Appeal.

The public donations have come mainly from Quebec but also from as far away as British Columbia and the United States, he said.

"I didn't go into politics just to do accounting. I went into politics to made society advance, and a society advances as long as it's supported by values," he said. "A serious problem we've got in today's society is that we've abandoned our values. That's why things are going so badly."

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About the Author

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More

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