The question of whether or not prayer belongs in the B.C. Legislature spurred Saanich resident and research coordinator Teale Phelps Bondaroff and folks from the B.C. Humanist Association (BCHA) to take a closer look at the practice of leading the House in prayer and the content of the prayers themselves.
Research began in 2018 and on Sept. 10, the group released a draft of the report analyzing the prayers delivered in the Legislature. Before the regular proceedings, the Speaker invites an MLA to deliver one of five standard prayers or one of their own creation.
With the help of 50 volunteers, the team transcribed all 873 prayers delivered by MLAs and guests between October 2003 and this February. Some prayers were unusual, Phelps Bondaroff noted. There were partisan attacks, mafia-like threats, requests for teachers to see the light and not strike and thanks were given for shipping contracts.
More than 71 per cent of the prayers were found to be religious or follow a religious prayer structure and the majority were Christian. The prayers also got longer and more religious over the years.
“Prayer in the B.C. Legislature favours Christianity over other faith traditions, favours religious belief over irreligious belief, and violates the state’s duty of religious neutrality,” Phelps Bondaroff noted.
In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that prayer had no place in municipal government as it was exclusionary and non-constitutional. The ruling didn’t address the provincial or federal governments as there is a parliamentary privilege. However, Phelps Bondaroff felt the case would be very interesting if it were brought to court as he noted privilege shouldn’t apply to discrimination.
Phelps Bondaroff also noted that only six per cent of the prayers had Indigenous content – often just one word –and there was never a land acknowledgement.
B.C. isn’t the only province that has prayer in the legislature, but BCHA researchers suggested following Quebec’s lead and replace prayer with a moment of reflection. This would have the same benefits as prayer but would be more inclusive, Phelps Bondaroff explained. Two other suggestions were presented in the report: abolish the prayer altogether or replace it with a land acknowledgement.
In recent correspondence with Phelps Bondaroff, the acting clerk, Kate Ryan-Lloyd, pointed out that the practice is currently being reviewed. Phelps Bondaroff noted the review may be a result of the constant emails from the BCHA researchers.
BCHA has organized an online letter-writing campaign for anyone interested to provide feedback to their MLA and the acting clerk on the prayer practice.