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Manitoba premier says legislature prayer may be changed to be more inclusive

WINNIPEG — The Manitoba government is looking to change the daily prayer at the legislature to make it more reflective of the province’s residents, including people of different faiths, atheists and those who believe in secularism in the public sphere.

“I’m asking faith leaders and people who grapple with the questions of secularism and what does it mean to be a Manitoban today to look at this opening prayer and say, ‘Is there a way that we could spend this minute that more accurately reflects who we are as Manitobans today?'” Premier Wab Kinew said Thursday.

“Is there a way that we could preserve the space for those who believe in God, and people such as myself who pray every day, but also to be more inclusive — inclusive of different faith traditions, but also inclusive of people who pride secularism in our society, people who may define themselves as atheists or non-believers?”

The opening prayer references an “eternal and almighty God.” It says legislature members assemble before God to tend to the welfare of the province, and pray to desire only things that are in accordance with God’s will. The prayer concludes with an amen.

A potential change is being welcomed by Humanist Canada, a group that has fought for religious neutrality in government settings.

“Our position is really that in any public space, prayer of one tradition or another should not be recited,” said Martin Frith, the group’s president. There are alternatives, such as a moment of silence or reflection, he added.

Some other legislatures have made changes in the last decade to religious language and symbols.

In 2019, Quebec’s national assembly removed a crucifix that hung on the wall above the Speaker’s chair and moved it to a glass box elsewhere in the building.

That same year, the British Columbia legislature expanded its list of sample prayers that members can use to open proceedings. The expanded list covers more religions and also allows for non-religious statements of reflection.

In 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled a municipal council in Saguenay, Que., could not open its meetings with a prayer. The high court ruled the prayer was an infringement on freedom of conscience and religion.

Kinew said he plans to hold consultations before deciding on any changes. 

Any final decision would be made by a legislature rules committee that includes representatives of the governing NDP, the Opposition Progressive Conservatives and the Liberal party. The committee is chaired by the legislature’s Speaker, Tom Lindsey. 

It was Lindsey who prompted the call for a change to the prayer, Kinew said.

The Progressive Conservatives said they want to ensure there is adequate consultation.

“Prayer is a sacred and time-honoured tradition in legislatures across Canada. Any consideration of changes in the Manitoba Legislative Assembly must be a non-partisan process that fully engages all legislators,” Tory house leader Derek Johnson said in a written statement.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 11, 2024.

— with files from Terri Theodore in Vancouver and Giuseppe Valiante in Montreal.

Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press

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