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Allow Prayer at Remembrance Day Ceremonies, Minister

This article originally ran in the Ottawa Citizen on October 31, 2023.

Inclusion doesn’t come through exclusion.

While this seems obvious, some of our public officials and military leadership need to hear it again.

The chaplain general of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), Brig. Gen. Guy Bélisle, has issued a new general directive just in time for Remembrance Day.

His directive on chaplains’ “spiritual reflection in public settings” replaces the 2013 policy on “public prayer at military ceremonies.”

The policy makes a subtle but dramatic shift; it replaces public prayer with something called “spiritual reflection.”

In making that shift, Brig. Gen. Bélisle’s directive notes that prayer “does not play a role” in the lives of some CAF members. He therefore calls on chaplains to adopt “a sensitive and inclusive approach when publicly addressing military members,” adding that chaplains “must ensure that all members feel respected and included by undertaking inclusive practices that respect diversity of beliefs with the CAF.”

That all sounds find to Defence Minister Bill Blair. He took to social media to say that “chaplains are not—and will not—be banned from prayer on Remembrance Day, or at any other time.”

Frankly, the minister is wrong.

The chaplain general essentially claims that public prayer is not an “inclusive practice.” The directive also makes clear that “spiritual reflection” is not prayer. It specifically bans chaplains from asking anyone to remove headwear before a “reflection” since the occasion is not considered religious.

So, the crafty directive rules out prayer without ever saying so directly.

In throwing out public prayer, Brig. Gen. Bélisle effectively excludes all military members—past and present—and other Canadians for whom public prayer is an essential part of  honouring those who’ve sacrificed their lives in the service of Canada.  (It’s also disrespectful of the many being honoured for whom prayer was essential.)

In the face of death, sacrifice, and the horrors of war (or even peacekeeping) many Canadians reach out to the divine through prayer. And those prayers are all very distinct, depending on the religion to which they belong. Hindu and Christian prayers, for example, are not interchangeable. So, a Remembrance Day ceremony reduced to a general “spiritual reflection” that supposedly applies to all, actually applies to none. It would be a commemoration where many soldiers, sailors, and air force personnel wouldn’t see or recognise themselves, their beliefs, or their traditions.

Bland spiritual reflections are the opposite of inclusive. These practices force the religiously faithful of Canada to stay silent and unseen. Canada has a tradition of respect in which adherents of different faiths make room for distinctive prayers, preferring the acknowledgment of difference to the reduction of all faiths to grey generalities.

Additionally, the chaplaincy’s directive hurts chaplains and clearly violates religious freedom—a constitutionally protected fundamental freedom.

A CAF chaplain is not merely a military member who follows orders. Chaplains can also be imams, rabbis, priests, pastors, or have some other religious position and title. They represent and live out specific faith traditions. The Charter recognises and protects chaplains’ freedom to live out their faiths without state interference.

Yet the chaplaincy’s directive doesn’t recognise this.

It presumes to tell chaplains what words to use, asking them to filter religious expression through “Gender Based Analysis.”

It tells chaplains not to wear their religious symbols at public events, replacing religiously distinct chaplain scarves with generic scarves that feature the chaplaincy crest—representing the state, not any faith.

It asks chaplains not to wear clothing or symbols that “may cause discomfort or traumatic feelings” at public events.

Through this directive, the state is telling chaplains what they can say and wear while performing functions, which are by nature religious. It’s as if the military has taken Quebec’s notorious Bill 21–which the federal government officially considers discriminatory—and transplanted it into the chaplaincy.

For the vast majority of chaplains who are Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or followers of another faith, complying with this directive is impossible. Yet the directive threatens disobedient chaplains with losing their mandate.

In effect, the CAF is excluding these people from its ranks in the name of “inclusiveness.”

It’s not too late to reverse course so that all truly are welcome at Remembrance Day ceremonies and other public events where chaplains play a role.

The chaplain general must undo his misguided and exclusionary directive.

It excludes religiously faithful CAF members and other Canadians at public ceremonies.

It excludes religiously faithful chaplains from the CAF.

It violates religious freedom.

And if Brig. Gen. Bélisle won’t rescind his directive, Defence Minister Bill Blair should step in and do it for him.

  • Michael Van Pelt is President and CEO, and Ray Pennings is Executive Vice-President, of the non-partisan think tank Cardus.

October 31, 2023

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A crafty military directive to chaplains rules out public prayer at ceremonies without ever saying so directly.