Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

The state cannot decide what is a religious symbol

Well, it's back-to-school time in Quebec for schools, universities and for the National Assembly.

Once again, the Parti Québécois government of Pauline Marois is celebrating the season by sort-of-announcing a deliberately frightening policy initiative. This year, the buzz is that the government's future "Charter of Quebec values" will come to the legislature in mid-September with sharp restrictions on individuals "ostentatiously" wearing "religious symbols" in publicly-funded settings.

As an observant lay Christian who also teaches Religious Studies in a publicly-funded Quebec university, I try neither to flaunt my religious identity nor to conceal it: I am constantly making professional judgments about when it is unhelpful to my students or colleagues to be made aware of my specific loyalties and when, on the other hand, they have a right or a responsibility to notice that I am actually committed to some of what I study. No National Assembly is competent to make those decisions for me.

Story continues below advertisement

The reports from "reliable sources close to the government" are short on details and leave the minister responsible, Bernard Drainville, with maximum room for manoeuvre. In the past, however, this sort of media buzz has indeed led to a real sting, certainly for those of us in higher education, so we have learned not to ignore mere rumour.

My worst fear is that the Marois government will only actually present a more "moderate" version of its ideas, or that debate in the National Assembly will result in some sort of "compromise." The only thing worse than a blanket attack on the expression of religious identity would be a "moderate" attack that secured democratic support by focusing on unpopular religious identity-markers (the burka, for example).

As mooted, the proposals have several interesting aspects. For starters, they reflect a deepening divide in Quebec nationalist consciousness: What are and what should be "Quebec values?" This is not just a problem for Quebec nationalists: For any liberal democracy the question arises, what values are so basic as to warrant an otherwise tolerant and permissive society and its government to impose or forbid by law certain expressions of identity?

What should mark Quebec identity, in addition to the French language and proximity to the St. Lawrence River? For many Québécois of the generation of Pauline Marois, an obviously important marker of Québécois identity is the non-practice of Roman Catholicism in particular and, by extension, the non-practice of any other identity that recalls pre-1960 Quebec Catholicism: anything authoritarian, deliberately visible, highly gender-differentiated.

Many younger Québécois and more recent immigrants do not carry quite the same emotional baggage when faced with a visible religious identity. But if Quebec isn't post-Catholic and therefore post-religious, what is it?

If there is any concept less clear than "Quebec values," it must surely be "religious symbols." What is a religious symbol and who gets to decide, once wearing them in the public sector has been made illegal? If two women wear identical headscarves, is only the Muslim woman wearing an offensive religious symbol? I wear a beard – I think because I hate shaving – but I have always felt honoured when someone has perceived me as Jewish or as Mennonite, or as Muslim because of it.

We live – not only in Quebec, but elsewhere in Canada – in societies which ostentatiously welcome and cultivate maximum visible diversity in ethnic, political, sexual identity, but we are much more nervous about the projection of religious identities, precisely because they often claim to be traditional. Regardless of what actually happens next, a government which claims me as its subject has indicated that it would like to restrict my and my neighbour's personal use of religious symbols. As a citizen, I cannot allow that. As a researcher and an educator in a free academy I cannot allow that. I do not usually wear jewellery, but this term at least I guess I will have to dust off that old cross, the one that remembers what the State tried to do to Jesus when he proclaimed God's sovereignty.

Story continues below advertisement

Ian H. Henderson is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Religious Studies at McGill University.

Report an error
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles as we switch to a new provider. We are behind schedule, but we are still working hard to bring you a new commenting system as soon as possible. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to