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Saguenay mayor, Jean Tremblay, and a crucifix. (Ivanoh Demers La Presse)
Saguenay mayor, Jean Tremblay, and a crucifix. (Ivanoh Demers La Presse)

Globe editorial

Quebec, tolerance and the crucifix Add to ...

A Quebec court ruling allowing the City of Saguenay to say a short prayer before council meetings and to display an artist’s rendering of a crucifix in council chambers shows why the province’s continuing debate on religious accommodation is overheated.

No one is forcing Quebec to take away its religious symbols. The Quebec flag has a cross in it. The National Assembly has a crucifix. The heritage of the province is not at risk, not even from the secularists or from the concept, borrowed from France, of the state’s “neutrality” among religions, or toward religion.

As the Quebec Court of Appeal said in the Saguenay case, in which a Quebec resident, Alain Simoneau, objected to a non-sectarian, 20-second prayer and the religious symbols, the “difficult and delicate question” of the state’s neutrality doesn’t require “that society be cleansed of all denominational reality, including that which falls within its cultural history.” The symbols, displayed for decades at Saguenay City Hall, are seen by most people as historical artifacts, the three judges on the appeal-court panel said.

The protection of these symbols should be seen as promoting tolerance and accommodation of religious minorities such as Jews, Muslims and Sikhs. Each community has been involved in flashpoints. The National Assembly barred four men wearing kirpans from hearings on accommodation. The previous Liberal government passed a law limiting the right of Muslim women to wear face veils while obtaining government services.

Quebec shouldn’t try to have it both ways. If the province has a right to exclusively Christian religious symbols in government buildings because, in essence, it has always been thus, Quebec shouldn’t deny to non-Christians the right to wear religious garb or symbols in those buildings. Complete “neutrality” does not exist in Quebec or the broader Canadian context – the very first line of the Canadian Charter of Rights invokes “the supremacy of God.” Like God and the crucifix, accommodation has a long cultural history in Quebec and the rest of Canada.

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