(Last week in a Montreal courtroom, Paula Celani won a three-year legal battle to quash a ticket she received in 2010 for holding an "illegal" Catholic Mass in a public building. Robert Reynolds, a lawyer with the Christian Legal Fellowship, fought the $144 fine on Celani's behalf. He spoke to the Cardus Daily's Peter Stockland immediately after the decision was handed down.)
Cardus: I gather things went as well as could be hoped.
Robert Reynolds: That is fair to say. When [Judge Bernard Mandeville] started to read his judgment, I didn't know which way he was going to go because he noted that Paula had broken her contract. She had signed a contract that said she wasn't going to carry on religious activities. But he was just listing the facts. In the end, he entirely accepted our argument. In fact, one of the authorities given by the other side actually supported our position. I don't know if they realized that or not, but he quoted [their cited authority] in support of our position.
Cardus: That has to hurt when the judge quotes your own evidence against you.
Robert Reynolds: Yes. It was the right decision as far as I am concerned, not just because of the way we presented it but, frankly, any other decision would have been wrong. I have asked to have [the judgment] in writing because I don't want to have this happen again. I want some authority that we can point to.
Cardus: As I understood it, Judge Mandeville was saying what happened here is no different from people bowing their heads and saying grace over a meal.
Robert Reynolds: Exactly. That was one example he gave as he was reading through his judgment. He was saying that someone temporarily or occasionally renting public premises for a religious purpose doesn't transform it into a place of worship. The other lawyer was actually arguing [against] that. She was saying that you could have a temporary destination; you could temporarily convert public premises into a place of worship by carrying on religious activities.
Cardus: I think Judge Mandeville said something to the effect of "If you come to my door and I sell you my dog, it doesn't mean I've opened a pet store."
Robert Reynolds: That's right. He disagreed totally with the other side's argument on that point.
Cardus: I understand, though, that while Paula Celani has won the case on the ticket, the ruling doesn't force a change in the contract itself.
Robert Reynolds: It's true it doesn't get rid of it, but I feel the clause is unconstitutional because it prevents people from using public premises for any religious purpose. That wasn't really the issue before this judge. The only issue was whether Paula should be found guilty of breaching the bylaw. And he specifically said he was not commenting on whether or not she broke the contract. But if someone presented a contract like that to me, I would insist the clause be removed. If they refused, it would be a basis for taking them to court.
Cardus: You could take them to court rather than waiting for a bylaw officer to put a ticket through your mail slot? That's a turnaround. Does the judgment have further consequences beyond the ticket given to Paula Celani?
Robert Reynolds: The principle we're arguing, and it's the same across Canada, is that religious believers should not be prevented from renting premises to have a religious service in. The judge pointed out that it wasn't for only religious purposes. I hope the message will get out that believers should be able to rent such premises in the same way someone else would be able to rent them for a non-religious purpose: for a wedding, a party, or any kind of gathering. A religious service is, after all, a social activity. It just has a different purpose.
Cardus: Just to be clear, you were not arguing that the bylaw, per se, is wrong but that the interpretation of the bylaw applied to the contract was incorrect?
Robert Reynolds: Absolutely. He accepted that totally. In fact, he said the municipal authorities misunderstood the bylaw and misapplied it.
Cardus: So would that mean that other bylaws elsewhere, which people might misinterpret in the same way, need to be re-examined?
Robert Reynolds: Those bylaws, and they exist across Canada, have as their purpose specifying where you can open up a church or a synagogue or a mosque. They're not to regulate activities. They are to regulate where you can put up a religious building.
Cardus: Would you have liked this case to go to a higher-level court, or are you satisfied that it was dealt with in the appropriate forum?
Robert Reynolds: Well, the higher you go, in theory, the wider the message goes. This is certainly a very first level court. Frankly, I would have preferred a higher court to say what [Judge Mandeville said] said. But we have to be thankful for small mercies.
Cardus: Someone has said it and that's what counts?
Robert Reynolds: Yes. It has received coverage across Canada. People are aware of it. The primary message here is that overzealous municipal employees misinterpreted their own law. I think they did it because increasingly the message is getting out that religion must not be tolerated in public spaces. Everyone has bought into that, which is why they said "oh-oh, you can't do it." But the judgment makes it clear that isn't so.