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Supreme Court to hear case of municipal council opening meetings with prayer

A man holds an umbrella outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, in this June 10, 2013 file photo.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

The Supreme Court of Canada will hear an appeal in a high-profile Quebec fight over whether a municipal council can open its meetings with a prayer.

The suit pits atheist Alain Simoneau and a secular-rights organization against Saguenay Mayor Jean Tremblay.

In 2011, Quebec's human rights tribunal ordered an end to the prayers, demanded that a crucifix in the city council chamber be removed and awarded damages to Simoneau.

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The mayor fought back, raising money from religion supporters through a website and the provincial court of appeal overturned the tribunal last year.

The outspoken politician said it was a fight for Quebec's heritage.

"It is not only the trial of Jean Tremblay. It is more than that: it is about the whole culture of Quebec," he said during the appeal court hearing.

While the case was before the court, the prayer was replaced by two minutes of silence.

The appeal court expressed some reservations about religious symbols in the council chamber, but concluded the city imposes no religious views on its citizens.

It said that reciting a prayer does not violate the religious neutrality of the city and if the recitation interfered with Simoneau's moral values, the interference was trivial.

It found the prayers had no discernible effect on the day-to-day running of the city.

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The case has been one of many in recent years on emotionally charged identity issues in Quebec. The mayor angrily intervened in the last provincial election to denounce a candidate who had suggested the crucifix should come down at the provincial legislature.

The Supreme Court announcement that it will hear the case comes as Quebec wrestles with the controversial secular values charter proposed by the Parti Quebecois government.

As usual, the court gave no reasons for its decision to hear the appeal.

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