Administrative law – Decisions of administrative tribunals – Human Rights Tribunal – Municipalities – By-laws – Human Rights – Discrimination – Religion – Charter of Rights and Freedoms – Judicial review – Jurisdiction – Standard of review – Correctness – Reasonableness simpliciter – Remedies – Damages
Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City),  S.C.J. No. 16, 2015 SCC 16, Supreme Court of Canada, April 15, 2015, McLachlin C.J. and LeBel, Abella, Rothstein, Cromwell, Moldaver, Karakatsanis, Wagner and Gascon JJ.
The complainant, an atheist, regularly attended public meetings of the City’s municipal council. At the meetings, the mayor recited a prayer after making the sign of the cross. The prayer recitation was regulated by a City bylaw. The complainant complained to the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse (the “Commission”) after the mayor refused to stop the practice. He argued that his freedom of conscience and religion was being infringed, contrary to ss. 3 and 10 of the Quebec Charter. The respondents also framed the issue as one of respect for freedom of conscience and religion. The matter was submitted to the Human Rights Tribunal.
The Tribunal held that the state’s duty of neutrality meant that a state authority could not make use of its powers to promote or impose a religious belief. It found there had been discriminatory interference with the complainant’s freedom of conscience and religion for the purposes of ss. 3 and 10 of the Quebec Charter. The Tribunal declared the bylaw inoperative and invalid and awarded the complainant $30,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.
The Quebec Court of Appeal allowed the appeal. It applied the correctness standard of review to the appeal because the appeal was ultimately about the religious neutrality of the state, which was a matter of importance to the legal system over which the specialized Tribunal did not have exclusive jurisdiction. The Court held that the prayer expressed universal values and could not be identified with any particular religion, so it did not affect the state’s neutrality. The Court concluded that the complainant had not been discriminated against.
On appeal, the SCC held that the Court erred in applying the standard of correctness to all of the Tribunal’s conclusions. Although the correctness standard applied to the question of law relating to the scope of the state’s duty of religious neutrality, the standard of reasonableness applied to the questions of whether the prayer was religious in nature, the extent to which it interfered with the complainant’s freedom and the determination of whether it was discriminatory. In applying the correctness standard, the SCC held that the Tribunal was correct in holding that the state’s duty of neutrality meant that a state authority could not make use of its powers to promote or impose a religious belief. Applying the reasonableness standard, it found that the Tribunal’s finding that the complainant’s freedom of conscience and religion for the purposes of ss. 3 and 10 of the Quebec Charter was discriminatory was reasonable. In applying the reasonableness standard to the remedy, the SCC said that insofar as the bylaw regulating the prayer infringed the Quebec Charter, the Tribunal could declare it to be inoperative only in relation to the complainant, but could not declare it to be inoperative and invalid generally, without further clarification, as the Tribunal does not have the jurisdiction to make such a broad order. The SCC also found that the Tribunal’s decision with respect to punitive and compensatory damages was reasonable.
In her concurring judgment, Abella J. criticized the application of different standards of review to different aspects of the Tribunal’s decision; she viewed this as a departure from the SCC’s jurisprudence which risked undermining the framework for how decisions of specialized tribunals are generally reviewed.
This case was digested by Kara Hill of Harper Grey LLP. If you would like to discuss this case further, please feel free to contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or review her biography at http://www.harpergrey.com.
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