If the two Parti Québécois cabinet ministers who wrote a letter to The New York Times this week defending the Quebec Charter of Values had wanted to discredit themselves and their government, they could not have done a better job. Their claim that the Charter is Quebec's "Jefferson moment" is laughable and self-incriminating. The Charter is exactly the kind of state meddling in religious freedom that Thomas Jefferson sought to prevent.
Bernard Drainville, the Minister for Democratic Institutions, and Jean-François Lisée, the Minister responsible for the Montreal Region and International Affairs, were responding to a commentary piece published in the Times under the headline "Quebec's Tea Party moment." The writer of the piece argued (correctly) that the proposed Charter, which would prohibit all public employees from wearing religious symbols or dress, is an attempt by the PQ minority government to whip up anti-immigrant sentiment for political gain.
The ministers countered in their letter that the Charter is, in fact, Quebec's "Jefferson moment," because it will "enshrine into law Jefferson's 'wall of separation between church and state.' " They could not be more wrong. They don't understand – at all – what separation of church and state means. And they picked exactly the wrong historical figure to buttress their argument.
In 1777, Jefferson wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. The third U.S. President considered it one of the three great accomplishments of his life, along with founding a university and drafting the Declaration of Independence. Consider his words: "All men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities." And: "our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry." And this: "Proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence, by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages, to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right."
Jefferson's statute gave birth to the U.S. First Amendment, enacted in 1791: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Were he alive today, he would be railing against a proposal to force people to choose between working in the civil service and professing their faith. The PQ ministers' evocation of Jefferson's name shines a light not only on their poor grasp of history, but also on the twisted thinking behind the Quebec Charter of Values. As Jefferson put it in the Statute of Religious Freedom, imposing "punishments or burdens" on a free mind's religious opinions or practices tends "to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness." Exactly.