TORONTO – The Lord’s Prayer and it’s fate in the Ontario legislature set off a fresh round of debate Thursday after politicians quietly launched public consultation on whether the province should fall in line with other Canadian jurisdictions and strike the Christian tradition.
As an all-party committee prepares to hear from hundreds of faith groups, atheists, and members of the public, there is already a clear division between those who think opening the daily proceedings with the Lord’s Prayer is outdated and those who consider it a vital Ontario tradition.
Premier Dalton McGuinty set the stage for the debate in February, announcing the governing Liberals want to open daily legislative debate with a prayer that is more inclusive and reflective of Ontario’s multiculturalism.
Ontario is more than just “Protestants and Catholics today,” he said at the time.
While critics remain skeptical about McGuinty’s motives to spark a debate at a time when no one appeared to be unhappy with the current recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, an all-party committee is now soliciting opinions from everyone from atheists and humanists to Buddhists and Christians.
Members of the public are also being asked to give their two cents on the legislature’s website at www.ontla.on.ca.
“The Lord’s Prayer has been a tradition and it certainly has relevance today,” said Neil MacCarthy, director of communications with the Archdiocese of Toronto. “You talk to people of many different faiths and they say that the Lord’s Prayer is as good as any to have as part of their day.”
Catholics are hopeful that there is still a place for prayer in the legislature and while the demographics of Ontario have changed, many still want to begin their day with a prayer, MacCarthy added.
The legislature may eventually have to rotate through various different prayers but it shouldn’t discard the Lord’s Prayer altogether, he added.
Some wondered why the Liberals sparked the divisive debate in the first place.
Frank Dimant, executive director of the B’nai Brith, said Ontario is facing much more pressing issues – including a slowing economy and gun violence in the streets. No one was clamouring for a change to the Lord’s Prayer, he said.
“I do not believe that the people of Ontario are interested in engaging in a massive debate between religions, ethnic groups, cultural groups and atheists,” said Dimant, adding the Lord’s Prayer is more symbolic nowadays.
“Why look for a problem which will pit group against group in this province?”
The last time the Ontario legislature updated its daily prayer was in 1969. It is one of the few remaining provinces left – besides Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick – still reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
Both the House of Commons and the Senate recite non-denominational prayers.
Conservative Garfield Dunlop, who is on the committee, said his party doesn’t care what other provinces, territories or the federal government are doing. What matters is what is best for Ontario, he said.
The party is open to other forms of prayer in the legislature but they won’t ever support banning the Lord’s Prayer, Dunlop said.
“There is a lot more behind it than just the prayer,” he said.
“Our whole British parliamentary system was based on Christianity. That goes right back to the Magna Carta. The first parliamentary sessions held in Great Britain were held in churches . . . Removing one thing is just like chipping away at a foundation.”
Cheri DiNovo, a United Church Minister who is representing the NDP on the committee, said the legislature should be focusing on other things.
“With one in eight children living in poverty, perhaps we could be spending taxpayer dollars to feed them,” she said.
Newfoundland and Labrador has no prayer in its House of Assembly, while Quebec’s National Assembly has only a daily moment of reflection.
Alberta uses a set list of non-denominational prayers that are rotated, while British Columbia also rotates the prayers but allows individual members to select the daily reading.
Manitoba changed the wording of its daily prayer years ago, while the Nova Scotia legislature uses a prayer written by its Speaker in 1972. The Saskatchewan legislature still uses a prayer drafted by an all-party committee in 1931.
Members of the Nunavut legislature choose their own prayer when it’s their turn in a rotation, while the Northwest Territories use a non-denominational prayer.
Yukon leaves the prayer up to the Speaker, some of whom in the past have asked members to bow their heads in a moment of silence.
Some of Ontario’s secular organizations have urged the province’s legislature to forego the Lord’s Prayer in place of a similar moment of silent reflection.
Speaker Steve Peters, who is chairing the Ontario legislature committee, said he hopes the all-party group will be able to come to a consensus after hearing from a good cross-section of Ontarians.
“We’re taking this seriously,” said Peters, adding the committee isn’t working under a deadline. “We’re trying to make sure that we’re not missing anyone . . . It’s all new to all of us.”