I’m going to do something this week that most people who read this column and even many who know me personally might not expect. I am going to defend religion, or rather, the right of individual people to observe their religious imperatives.
Quebec’s proposed Charter of Quebec Values that seeks to ban religious apparel in public institutions represents either a profound lack of understanding of the concept of secularism or a thinly-veiled attempt to block religiously observant non-Christians from public service or, at the very least, subjugate them to the sensibilities of the majority.
Don’t get me wrong, I commend any government that promotes strict adherence to secular principles. There is no place in public institutions for the official promotion of one religion over others or over non-religion, but it doesn’t give the state the right to contravene individuals’ fundamental freedoms.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is unequivocal on this in section 2.
“Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: (a) freedom of conscience and religion; (b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication; (c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and (d) freedom of association.”
The concept of secularism is equally simple and unequivocal. It is separation of church and state not separation of church and state employees.
The fact that Premier Pauline Marois and the Parti Quebecois don’t seem to get this distinction is either disingenuous or demonstrates they are simply unfit to hold public office in a modern pluralistic democracy.
The fact they are trying to hide blatantly racist legislation under the guise of secularism is an affront to religious and non-religious people alike.
And the fact this is coming hot on the heels of the Quebec Soccer Federation turban scandal demonstrates they have very little political sense. That fiasco is going to look like handling a constituent complaint about potholes compared the storm of indignation and international embarrassment to come.
The defence of the legislation that it applies equally to all religious displays is just downright cynical. Trying to draw equivalency between a Christian’s desire to wear an ostentatious crucifix/cross to a Sikh’s moral obligation to wear a turban can only be seen as window dressing especially considering the government has no intention of taking down the crucifix prominently displayed in the Legislature citing “provincial heritage.”
That is not to say governments, or any employer for that matter, doesn’t have some discretion to establish dress codes. For example, it would hardly be appropriate for a construction worker to show up for work in flip flops instead of steel-toe boots. The question is one of the reasonableness of code. Clearly, banning religious headwear does not pass the test. It didn’t with the RCMP and it didn’t with FIFA.
At this point there is no guarantee Marois’ minority government will be able to pass the proposed legislation, but it will likely enjoy widespread public approval. Polls during the soccer debate indicated a majority supported the turban ban and viewed (non-Christian) religious apparel as a cultural threat.
But while cultural insecurity is a mainstay of Quebec politics, so is pragmatism. While many Quebecers may support such a policy in theory, it is at the bottom of their priorities when it comes to the ballot box. They will need the Opposition to help them pass the Charter and if they don’t, it doesn’t seem likely the Parti Quebecois can gain much in the way of votes on this issue although they have stated outright that they hope it will further their main cause of separating from Canada, a proposition Quebec voters have rejected twice.
While I am appalled by the Parti Quebecois for proposing such a law, I am equally disappointed with the Quebec Secular Society coming out in support of it. Secularism is not about controlling the personal lives of religious people, it is about preventing the state from governing on religious principles.
This is not simply a Quebec issue. Plenty of people in Saskatchewan and across the country are secretly, and not so secretly, cheering Quebec on. Too many of us are happy to embrace secular society in theory as long as we don’t actually put it into practice.
This debate about accommodating religious and non-religious minorities is likely to carry on for years if not decades and it will be interesting to see what the Charter of Quebec Values looks like if and when the government brings it forward. One value that will not be explicitly stated, but is there implicitly for all to see, is racism, because the proposal clearly does not target all religious people, only the visible ones.