Time has come to revisit National Prayer Breakfast status as a religious convention sponsored by Parliament

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Why would the Parliament of Canada endorse a leadership summit that limits participation on the basis of religion?

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on May 6, 2019.

OTTAWA—Christians only need apply.

According to the Canada Prayer Breakfast website, the annual parliamentary event held last week included a 100-person youth summit.

The National Christian Youth Summit (formerly known as the National Student Forum) was held in the Parliamentary Precinct. It was billed as the Canada Youth Summit but the recruitment and travel subsidy material said only Christians need apply. While its Facebook page says the event is open to all faiths, its website invites those who are “passionate about bringing your faith in Jesus Christ.”

Why would the Parliament of Canada endorse a leadership summit that limits participation on the basis of religion?

It is more important than ever to share stories with multiple religions viewpoints, especially among young people.

Perspectives of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism should also be reflected in any government-supported event that purports to increase the influence of religion in Canada’s political life.

Many Members of Parliament attend the annual National Prayer Breakfast, sharing a common desire to include spirituality in public decision-making.

When the country came together in support of the victims of the New York World Trade Centre attacks, 100,000 people gathered on Parliament Hill to hear prayers from diverse religious leaders.

In Canada, we have had a proud history of religious diversity. The Prayer Breakfast has been held annually since the time of prime minister Lester Pearson. The Member of Parliament who chairs a regular, informal parliamentary prayer group organizes the program.

Other religious events are often held on Parliament Hill, focusing on the special days for specific religions, like Eid, or Diwali.

Any not-for profit group can host an event on Parliament Hill, as long as certain conditions are met.

But, the Canada Prayer Breakfast is unique because it is offered under the combined authority of the Speakers of the House and the Senate.

Should the Speaker’s Office be sponsoring a religious summit that is exclusionary in nature?

The Christian youth summit is held to “meet, worship, pray and dialogue with Christian Parliamentarians, public servants, NGOs, and ministry leaders.” Would it not be important to meet with all parliamentarians, not just those who share the same religious beliefs? What happened to separation of church and state?

The choice of speakers makes it clear that this is more than a religious event. It is a gathering with decidedly political overtones.

Keynote advertised speakers for a dinner preceding the event and the prayer breakfast included a speaker from Samaritan’s Purse and a director of the Zacharias Institute.

Samaritan’s Purse, an international relief organization headed by the son of televangelist Dr. Billy Graham, has been criticized in Canada and abroad for tying its relief efforts to religious conversion attempts.

Just last week, CEO Franklin Graham called on U.S. President Donald Trump, to declare the Council on American-Islamic Relations a terrorist organization. He characterized CAIR as a mouthpiece in Washington for radical Islam.” CAIR has denied the allegations and has said it condemns terrorism.

According to a 2017 article in The Atlantic, Graham has called for a total ban on Muslim immigration into the United States. He also considers gay Boy Scouts a major threat to children but believes that God is at work in the Donald Trump White House.

“He did everything wrong, politically,” Graham said. “He offended gays. He offended women. He offended the military. He offended Black people. He offended the Hispanic people. He offended everybody! And he became president of the United States. Only God could do that.” Now, there’s “no question” that God is supporting Trump, Graham said. “No president in my lifetime—I’m 64 years old—can I remember … speaking about God as much as Donald Trump does.”

Three years ago, the Canadian arm of the organization, featured in last week’s event, fired Newfoundland volunteer Kay Cossar from Burgeo when she refused to sign an updated faith statement denouncing same-sex marriage and abortion.

She had been regional co-ordinator of Operation Christmas Child for eight years.

Samaritan’s Purse spokesperson Jeff Adams defended the firing, saying the organization’s faith statement had been amended because “the world’s view on these has changed”… “The amendments include a specific mention that ‘human sexuality is to be expressed only within the context of marriage,’ that a marriage by Biblical definition is between ‘a genetic male and genetic female,’ and that ‘human life is sacred from conception to its natural end.’”

The second speaker was Vince Vitale, a director of the Zacharias Institute. The institute bills itself as a training centre for Christian apologists. An American educational facility it offers courses on how to argue the case for Christianity, and against other religious options.

The time has come to revisit the Canada Prayer Breakfast status as a religious convention sponsored by Parliament.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.