‘I felt like a criminal’: Montreal woman fighting ticket for ‘illegal’ mass grilled on the stand

Paula Celani;Listening to the aggressive cross-examination of defendant Paula Celani Thursday, it was as if she had robbed a bank, or worse. “I felt like a criminal,” she said afterwards.

In fact, Ms. Celani’s alleged offence was the rental of a municipal building for a gathering of her Catholic group, at which a religious video was screened, mass was celebrated, hymns were sung and a potluck lunch enjoyed.

Six months after the October 2009 event at the Maison du Brasseur in the Montreal borough of Lachine, Ms. Celani received a $144 ticket in the mail saying she had broken a bylaw, because the building was not zoned for religious use.

Rather than simply pay the ticket and move on, she decided to fight it, and after many delays the case came to trial Thursday. Testifying in her defence, Ms. Celani said the 2009 rental was the third time her group, Fondation En Route, had used the space for an annual gathering of about 100 people.

She said that when she signed the rental contract, she informed a city employee that she planned to show a video and hold a mass in the building’s auditorium.

“I was very, very clear,” she said, adding that the employee’s only concern was to ensure the video was not sexual.

But some employees working the day of the gathering reported to their superiors that a prohibited “religious event” had taken place, including a mass, religious songs and the sale of rosaries. (Ms. Celani told the court the rosaries were handmade by group-members’ children as part of a fundraising effort for schools in Africa.)

City prosecutor José Costa said the zoning bylaw was intended to exclude all religious use from the area where Ms. Celani’s event took place. He grilled Ms. Celani about whether she had read the fine print on the rental contract, which stated that no activities of worship were permitted. She said she relied on the word of the city employee who told her there was no problem with her group’s rental.

City employees reported to their superiors on the prohibited sale of rosaries – handmade by children as part of a fundraising effort for schools in Africa

Mr. Costa frequently cut short Ms. Celani’s answers.

“Ms. Celani, where else have you held religious ceremonies?” he asked at one point. “Did you have the right to hold religious ceremonies there?”

Ms. Celani’s lawyer, Robert Reynolds, argued that the bylaw is intended to prohibit buildings whose principal purpose is worship, not to outlaw an occasional religious ceremony.

Judge Bernard Mandeville questioned whether the city’s strict interpretation would prevent someone from inviting a few friends into his house for a religious service.

Veronica Mollica, another lawyer for the city, said that by the letter of the law, even such an intimate ceremony would be illegal.

If the court finds Ms. Celani did contravene the zoning bylaw, Mr. Reynolds argued that the ticket infringes on her fundamental rights, as guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The position of the city is that you cannot even pronounce the name of God, cannot taken an action that would be considered religious in a public place,” Mr. Reynolds told the court. On the contrary, he said, “The right to live one’s religion can be exercised outside a church.”

He added that singling out Ms. Celani for a ticket also violates her right to equality, since other groups are allowed use the facility for cultural events and parties. “But they want to prohibit rental to my client to hold a mass,” he said.

Judge Mandeville has reserved his decision.

Outside the court, Ms. Celani said she fought the ticket because she saw it as a personal affront.

“It’s part of my life. It’s who I am,” she said of her faith. “I don’t see why a bylaw should tell me that I can’t pray or attend a mass. It’s as simple as that.”

John Zucchi, president of the En Route Foundation, said the case addresses an important issue. “You don’t want to use bylaws to push religion into the private sphere totally,” he said.

Read the original article at http://life.nationalpost.com/2012/12/20/paula-celani-illegal-mass-court-case/