Paula Celani's day in court has become a six-month legal odyssey.
The Montreal woman was back in front of a judge yesterday to fight a ticket she received for participating in an "illegal Mass" at a rented facility in the borough of Lachine. But the case was put over until February 22, 2012 when Celani's lawyer will argue the ticket is invalid because it is an abuse of a zoning bylaw and, more importantly, because it violates her Charter rights.
Celani first appeared in court in mid-September. The initial hearing was deferred because witnesses from the borough didn't bother to show up.
In the interim, Celani engaged a Montreal constitutional lawyer to argue the case, at least in part on Charter grounds. She acknowledged after her appearance on Tuesday that her reflex was to simply pay the $144 fine and settle the matter. Then she got mad, and the madder she got, the more she became determined to fight.
"I realized this is not right. It's not right for them to do this to me or anybody else. I rented a space, I invited friends to come and share it with me, my friends said 'yes' and I was fined for it. It's an infringement of my rights," she said.
The ground for the legal fight was laid back in October 2009, when Celani and friends belonging to a lay Catholic organization paid $700 for a few hours rental of the Maison du Brasseur in Lachine, on the southwest edge of Montreal. It was the third year in a row the group had rented the same public facility to gather behind closed doors, sing songs, listen to lectures, participate in a Mass, and share a meal. At no point, Celani says, was she ever told about the infamous "illegal Mass" provision.
Six months later, however, she was mailed the $144 fine for violating a bylaw that purportedly prohibits rental of the building for prayer, religious singing, or any kind of religious service. In fact, says lawyer Bob Reynolds, the bylaw cited on the ticket deals with nothing of the sort. It's a zoning bylaw regulating land use. Under current zoning, someone would be prevented from turning the Maison du Brasseur into a full-purpose, full-time church.
"But the bylaw says nothing about occasional use. It's there to control normal use of the land," Reynolds says. "The way they've applied it makes no sense—it's a misuse of the bylaw."
He noted a case in which another Montreal-area municipality tried to use a zoning bylaw to prevent an individual from putting up a religious shrine in his own backyard. That case, Reynolds says, was tossed out of court. Beyond the abuse of zoning, he argues, there is the assault on Charter guarantees not just to freedom of religion but freedom of association and freedom of speech.
If Celani is fined for being at a Mass behind closed doors in rented public space, what happens when another group holds a dinner in the facility and simply says grace before their meal? Will the faithful eventually be subjected to the equivalent of quarantine by prohibiting all religious gatherings outside of churches, mosques, synagogues, and other specially-designated buildings?
"You have to wonder how far the State is willing to go," says John Zucchi, chairman of the history department at McGill and a member of the lay Catholic group that rented the Maison du Brasseur. "Is this the new secular norm in Quebec to which we are all expected to subscribe?"
If so, he warns, we are headed for a future reminiscent of the very ugly time in Canada's past when settlement of Chinese immigrants was strictly controlled by using zoning to limit their businesses to particular sections of cities.
At the end of the day, a six-month fight will seem a small price to pay if it prevents such grotesque affronts to all Canadians who truly believe in freedom.