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Canadian Jewish News

October 7, 1999

Lord's Prayer banned at Penetanguishene council

Staff Reporter

PENETANGUISHENE, Ont. - One of the very few Jewish residents of the northern Ontario town of Penetanguishene is pleased that his fight to have the Lord's Prayer banned at council meetings appears to be over.

And Henry Freitag is taking the accompanying anti-Semitic fallout in stride.

"I got calls saying I'm a Nazi. I got calls saying I'm a Jew. I even had some death threats," Freitag, 70, told The CJN in a phone interview a few days after the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that reciting the Lord's Prayer at the start of Penetanguishene's council meetings violates religious freedom and is unconstitutional.

In a unanimous 3-0 decision, the court overturned a lower ruling which had said the Lord's Prayer was innocuous and should not be censored.

The higher court disagreed, saying the purpose of reciting the Lord's Prayer was to "impose a Christian moral tone on the deliberations of council," and that everyone is entitled to attend a council meeting without feeling pressure to conform "to the religious practices of the majority."

The court issued an injunction preventing the town from engaging in the ritual, which dates back 100 years.

Last month's decision is a big win for Freitag, who launched his challenge to the prayer because, as a non-Christian, he felt "coerced" to stand and recite it at council meetings, which he attends frequently.

Freitag also argued that the practice discouraged him from running for public office. "This does not mean he is so fearful that he does not participate," the court stated in its 26-page decision. "He does so, but as a citizen who is singled out as being not part of the majority recognized officially in the proceedings."

Freitag also based his argument on a 1988 Ontario Court of Appeal ruling, which struck down the regulation that forced public classrooms to start the day with the Lord's Prayer.

The court relied on a 1985 ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada that the Lord's Day Act, which prohibited Sunday shopping, was unconstitutional because it effectively forced the observance of the Christian Sabbath. Freitag, a retired construction worker, said he's still getting some "nasty" mail and calls. But, he insists, "I didn't win. Canada won." Freitag's late mother was Jewish, and the two spent several weeks at a Nazi detention centre in Berlin during World War II. His mother died in a bombing raid, and Freitag spent the rest of the war living as a Christian.

He came to Canada in 1956. The ruling means the custom of beginning town and city council meetings with the Lord's Prayer has more or less ended in Ontario. The court suggested the town of Penetanguishene follow the lead of the House of Commons, where, since 1994, proceedings have opened with a moment of silence and a non-denominational prayer.

In a statement, Penetanguishene's mayor, John Klug, said he was disappointed with the court ruling. "Overall, the feeling of the residents in town is one of disappointment," the statement said. "Residents are having a hard time understanding how one person can dictate what they can say or not say." The town's council is scheduled to meet Oct. 6 to discuss the ruling and decide whether to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. Residents donated $8,546 to help the town pay its legal bills.

Klug said the town cannot afford further appeals without public assistance. The mayor added he was heartened by encouragement shown by residents and by mayors of other communities across Canada which recite the Lord's Prayer. Freitag said there are four of five other Jewish residents of Penetanguishene, which has a population of 8,000. He conceded it's difficult to practise Judaism there, as the nearest Jewish community is in Barrie, about 50 kilometres away.

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