Ashu Solo vs City of Saskatoon and Randy Donauer
On April 14th, 2016 the Chief Commissioner of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission, David M. Arnot, dismissed the case of Ashu Solo vs the City of Saskatoon and Randy Donauer. On balance, Solo appears to have been completely consistent with the Human Rights Code, related decisions and Canadian values; As Commissioner Arnot stated, “Mr. Solo’s analysis of the issue of state sanctioned prayer is remarkably consistent with the approach subsequently espoused by the Supreme Court of Canada in the Saguenay case.” The Commissioner also commented, ” Although, I have found that Mr. Solo’s complaint does not have sufficient merit to proceed to a hearing under the Code, many of his concerns regarding inclusiveness in the City of Saskatoon appear justified.”
What is clear from the decision is that secular citizens should complain when they feel that their human rights have been violated. Rather than being interfered with and vilified as he appears to have been, Ashu Solo should be congratulated for standing-up for his secular human rights.
The 13-page, 47 point dismissal concludes with the following comments:
46. After having carefully considered the whole of the evidence on the file, the quality and nature of that evidence, and the legal principles relevant to this complaint, I find that there is no reasonable likelihood that a court, in looking at the evidence as a whole, would find this complaint to be substantiated on a balance of probabilities. For these reasons, I find that the complaint does not have sufficient merit in law to warrant a court hearing.
47. This complaint is without merit. I hereby dismiss it pursuant to paragraph (b) of subsection 27.1(2) of the
Mr. Solo has issued a media advisory stating “Regardless of Commissioner Arnot’s decision on my civil rights case, I’m glad that filing this case caused the city to stop prayer recitations at civic events. Other municipalities should heed the chief commissioner saying that a general practice of prayer recitations is contrary to the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code. Donauer said that he was just expressing his beliefs. He was abusing his government office to get other people to pray according to his beliefs.”
If you are not familiar with Solo’s human rights complaint, Commissioner Arno’ts decision provides the essential background:
I am a person who is not a Christian. I feel that the Mayor’s Office and the City of Saskatoon are using their position, political authority and/or public monies to convey and/or promote one religion, namely Christianity, over other beliefs. An example of this includes City Councilor, Randy Donauer, performing a Christian prayer at a Volunteer Appreciation Banquet held on or about April 18, 2012 at TCU Place in Saskatoon, SK that was hosted and funded by the City of Saskatoon. I act as a volunteer on the City of Saskatoon Cultural Diversity and Race Relations Committee, which is an advisory committee to Saskatoon City Council, and attended the banquet in this role. I have reasonable grounds to believe and do believe that the promotion of Christianity above other religions and creeds by the Mayor’s Office and the City of Saskatoon by conducting Christian prayers at municipal events, such as the Volunteer Appreciation Banquet, discriminates against me, and others who do not share the Christian faith. This practice interferes with my freedom of conscience, contrary to Section 4 and on the grounds of religion and creed contrary to Section 12 of The Saskatchewan Human Rights Code.
In light of the dismissal, there are a great many interesting and ironic details I the case for secular citizen of communities throughout the country to consider. Whether the case should have been dismissed is an essential question as comments throughout Commissioner Arnot’s documentation demonstrate that this was a legally significant situation. Following are several samples of comments from the dismissal.
My decisions are not typically released publicly. However, the Commission’s publication policy allows my decisions to be released publicly in certain circumstances. Mr. Solo’s complaints with the City of Saskatoon have received considerable media attention. They have also generated significant public interest. In respect of this complaint, I understand that Mr. Solo, representatives of the City of Saskatoon and Councilor Donauer have spoken to the media about the circumstances surrounding the Complaint. I am advised that Mr. Solo has posted copies of Commission correspondence online and released some of the same to the media. I noted that many of the reports in the media contained inaccurate information regarding the Complaint and the Commission’s processes. I anticipate that my decision, or parts of it, will become public irrespective of whether I release it publicly.
Commissioner Arnot clearly recognizes that there was public interest and concern with this case and that media reports were not necessarily a reliable source of information for this case. Commissioner Arnot expands on the important and value of providing education to the public regarding human rights. The dismissal goes on through section three to nine to explain the relevant law before explaining the complaint process (Items 10 through 15) and reasons for delays between the initial complaint in 2012 and completion of investigations. Commissioner Arnot notes:
The investigation of this complaint was completed in August 2014. In October 2014 the Supreme Court heard an appeal from the Quebec Court of Appeal in Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City), 2015 SCC 16. The Commission was tracking the Saguenay case through the Quebec courts because it involved a similar issue under Quebec’s human rights legislation. I decided to delay assessing Mr. Solo’s complaint until the Supreme Court decided the Saguenay case. I now have that decision and have relied on it in these reasons.
This reference to the Saguenay case is important for those interested to advance secular human rights. Given the tendency for cases in one jurisdiction to influence decisions in other jurisdictions, it is important to evaluate the intentions that courts express. Indeed, Solo’s case provides valuable information for others who may face similar circumstances in the future.
Secions 16 through 23 present evidence where again there are some interesting details and statements to examine:
(17) ….Much of Mr. Solo’s submissions articulate legal or philosophical arguments in favour of a distinct separation between religion and the state. This is consistent with the outline of his complaint on the Commission’s complaint form.
(18)….The evidence also confirmed that City of Saskatoon officials invited Councilor Donauer to give the prayer or grace at the banquet.
- (19)…Councilor Donauer advised the Commission’s investigator that he did not have a copy of the prayer. Councilor Donauer also advised the Commission that he was refusing to participate in the investigation. Shortly after this communication, Councilor Donauer reported to media that he received a number of threats that the Commission would obtain a search warrant and search his house. Councilor Donauer also expressed some fear the Commission would arrive at his home unannounced and said this was affecting his family. He also reported to media that he feared he would lose his home as a result of the financial consequences of the complaint. If Councilor Donauer had chosen to communicate with the Commission and participate in the process he would have learned that his fears were unfounded. The Commission never had any intention to search Councilor Donauer’s home for a copy of a prayer that he said he did not retain. Councilor Donauer also appears to have been misguided in his stated fear that he could lose his home. Firstly, the Commission had made no assessment of the merits of the complaint. Secondly, most complaints are resolved without a hearing. Finally, if the complaint proceeded through a hearing and Mr. Solo was successful, the awards for complaints such as this are relatively modest in Saskatchewan and were limited by the Code at the time to a maximum of $10,000.00.
- (20)…. It is unusual for a respondent to refuse to cooperate with the Commission’s complaint process.
(23)…This case was unusual because the facts were essentially undisputed. I expect that the Commission will be compelled to bring court applications if we are rebuffed in future investigations.
The evidence supported that a prayer was requested and authorized by the municipality; the evidence also demonstrated refusal by a politician to co-operate with human rights process and a probably outcome of complications in the future for human rights commissions. Councilor Donauer’s behaviour raises questions about the effective impacts to future cases. Should Saskatchewan residents and other Canadians continue to complain when politicians use their position to advance specific religious perspectives?
In Commissioner Arnot’s analysis (sections 24-45), there are several indications that Solo’s complaint was completely appropriate
- (25)….The leading case on the separation of religion and state from Saskatchewan is Fancy v. Saskatoon Public School Board (1999)….The Saskatoon Public School Board was directed to cease its practice of sanctioning the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and bible study in public schools.
- (26-31) The issue of prayer at municipal meetings was recently considered by the Supreme Court of Canada in Mouvement laique quebecois v. Saguenay (City), 2015 SCC….Mr. Simoneau’s complaint was successful before a tribunal appointed under the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. The Quebec Court of Appeal set aside the decision of the tribunal. The Court of Appeal accepted that culture, historical reality or heritage prevented the state from adopting religious neutrality. The Supreme Court of Canada overturned the decision of the Quebec Court of Appeal and reinstated the Tribunal’s finding that the City of Saguenay prayer interfered with Mr. Simoneau’s freedom of conscience and religion and was therefore discriminatory.
- (32-33) Whether Mr. Solo is atheist, agnostic or follows some other non-Christian faith or belief system does not affect the veracity of his objection to the prayer at the Volunteer Appreciation Banquet.
- (34) I reject the City of Saskatoon’s submission that Mr. Solo’s complaint is motivated by improper political purposes.
- (35-36) Having reviewed all of the evidence, I find Mr. Solo’s beliefs regarding state endorsed Christian prayer are sincere…. Mr. Solo’s analysis of the issue of state sanctioned prayer is remarkably consistent with the approach subsequently espoused by the Supreme Court of Canada in the Saguenay case.
- (37) In response to Mr. Solo’s complaint the City of Saskatoon chose not to have a prayer at subsequent Volunteer Appreciation Banquets…. In the Saguenay case the interference with Mr. Simoneau’s beliefs was deemed intentional. The evidence suggests that any interference with Mr. Solo’s beliefs was inadvertent or perhaps negligent, but not intentional.
- (38-39)… The purpose of the Volunteer Appreciation Dinner was to thank volunteers for their service. The recitation of a Christian prayer at this event represents poor judgment. It was disrespectful and insensitive to a multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-theist audience. The volunteers attending the dinner, like the citizens of Saskatoon have varied religious, spiritual and cultural traditions. The decision to incorporate a Christian prayer ignored this reality…. Mr. Solo was attending the Volunteer Appreciation Dinner as a member of the City of Saskatoon’s Cultural Diversity and Race Relations Committee.
- (40)… Mr. Solo reports that he was derided in social media because of this complaint. I am advised that many of the comments exhibited racism. He reports receiving threats. The individuals who ridiculed Mr. Solo fail to understand the rights and responsibilities of being a Canadian citizen. Mr. Solo had legitimate grounds to file a complaint. His insistence on the neutrality of the state in religious matters is consistent with the view of the Supreme Court of Canada. This is an important issue. Many of Mr. Solo’s detractors are exhibiting the intolerance and lack of understanding that the Code is designed to prevent. Ultimately, however, the City of Saskatoon is not responsible for misguided comments by members of the public.
- (42)….Although, I have found that Mr. Solo’s complaint does not have sufficient merit to proceed to a hearing under the Code, many of his concerns regarding inclusiveness in the City of Saskatoon appear justified…... There are numerous examples in Canadian history where the majority of Canadians either supported or accepted discriminatory practices against racial or religious minorities.
- (45) The Supreme Court’s decision in the Saguenay case does not mean that prayer or spiritual ceremonies can never be combined with municipal activities. City officials must respect multi-culturalism and ensure that they do not favour one religion or belief system over others. This includes recognizing that many people have no religious or spiritual beliefs….. The adoption of a general practice of reciting prayers at municipal events is contrary to the Code.