SAGUENAY - The mayor of Saguenay defied a ruling by Quebec's Human Rights Tribunal and began his monthly council meeting Monday night by reciting a Christian prayer.

Despite the outcry from secular activists, Mayor Jean Tremblay is appealing the decision by the tribunal, and his support is widespread.

In front of a packed council room of about 150 spectators, Tremblay recited the prayer as a few people booed. About 50 people were not granted access to the council room, and police were on hand to handle crowd control.

Nearly everyone in the northern Quebec city of 150,000 identifies themselves as being Catholic, even if they don't worship at church.

"I counted our registers of baptisms and 95.5 percent of people declare themselves as Catholic," said Marc Girard, a Catholic Priest and religious scholar.

Mayor Tremblay says that looking to God while in council chambers is a reflection of old-fashioned Catholic values in a world gone politically correct.

His fight has generated support from across Canada, with donors writing cheques to cover the cost of his legal appeal.

"You can say it's a crusade, you can say that. No problem for me," said Mayor Tremblay.

But the notion that the mayor is fighting a holy war gets under some people's skin.

Civic activist Eric Dubois is one of those fighting the mayor, along with a group called "Citizens for Democracy."

"We oppose the fact that he says he has all the people of Saguenay behind him," said Dubois.

With his team, Dubois made a video saying the mayor does not speak for them and should not be using his civic office to promote the Catholic church.

The group says having religious symbols in legislatures, and leading prayers in chambers, is a throwback to La Grande Noirceur, the era in Quebec when the Roman Catholic church was actively involved in supporting Premier Maurice Duplessis's conservative policies.

"We think this debate is more divisive than inclusive," Dubois said. "Actually here in Saguenay we need to be together."

Members of the Catholic church say rules separating church and state don't fit smaller, homogeneous areas like Saguenay-Lac St. Jean.

"It's hard to apply a rule that would work in Montreal or Toronto to the region here, Saguenay-Lac Saint Jean," said Girard. "In that sense Jean Tremblay represents his city."

But Girard wouldn't necessarily use the same tactics as the mayor.

"I wouldn't say that myself I would adopt the same strategy, that is to say a strategy of direct confrontation," said Girard.

With files from The Canadian Press