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Secularism: A word that conveys fear and oppression to some, but serves as a banner of hope and equality to others. At the heart of this paradox is the confusion and ambiguity behind the concept of separation between religion and state.

The proposed Quebec Charter has become a flashpoint for two competing interpretations of secularism. Its original, informal title, "The Quebec Charter of Values," suggested secularism as a value that government would push aggressively on its citizens – an interpretation greeted with concern by many. The bill's new wording, "Charter affirming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality…" seems designed to address such worries. It focuses instead on the concept of neutrality, in which government merely levels the playing field so the citizenry may put forward a variety of values, with the state guaranteeing them the ability to compete on an equal footing.

But under the cloak of this more benign title, the bill continues to take aim at precisely the wrong target: people, rather than public institutions. Neutrality is indeed the appropriate goal. But instead of focusing on the religious expression of its employees, government should work to remove the institutional religious favouritism which is the real culprit that biases the public square away from neutrality.

It is hypocritical to target religious symbols worn by teachers, while continuing to offer public subsidies to faith schools. It makes no sense to ask workers to remove their crosses, kippahs, turbans, or hijabs, while the crucifix stays up on the wall of the National Assembly, Christian prayers continue to open city council meetings, and religious buildings continue to enjoy special property tax exemptions.

This is secularism dressed up anti-religious bigotry, rather than a critical piece in a pluralistic democracy. In fact, as Quebec philosopher Jocelyn Maclure argues, secular society, if understood as public-square neutrality and equality of treatment between believers of different religions or no religion, is a necessary route to freedom of religion and conscience.

Such equality and neutrality demand that religious, secular and even atheist forms of expression be accorded the same respect. In 2009 city governments across Canada banned atheist bus advertisements as too offensive for the public square. These policies were reversed following a Supreme Court of Canada decision that required transit authorities to run political ads, concluding that controversial messages are an important part of public discourse.

Now history repeats itself. A new round of atheist ads submitted by the Centre for Inquiry, set to launch in Vancouver, have just been rejected by billboard agency Pattison Outdoor. The billboards feature parables replacing religious morality with humanist ethical aphorisms. Pattison's near monopoly on billboards in downtown Vancouver enables them to censor atheist messages from the bulk of the available market.

The legal applicability of the previous Supreme Court decision is untested here. Its origin lies in a city transit commission case, although some billboards do fall on city property. More clear-cut is the British Columbia Human Rights Code which prohibits discrimination in service provision. Service that amounts to accessing the public square without discrimination should be especially protected.

The Canadian Human Rights Commissions have often been used as tools to censor, but a forthcoming human-rights complaint by CFI will seek to use these mechanisms instead to protect the right to free speech.

Canadians are ambivalent on the topic of religion. According to a 2010 Ipsos poll, nearly two-thirds of Canadians believe religion "promotes intolerance, exacerbates ethnic divisions and impedes social progress." Fear of encroachment of religious dogma into the public sphere is a primary motivation behind Quebec's Charter. On the other hand, Canadians tend to abhor offending religious sensibilities. Hence the attempted prohibition on atheist advertisements even while governments afford special treatment to religion, through public subsidies to faith schools and charitable status to purely missionary activities.

The appropriate response to this inconsistency is a middle ground based on secularism as neutrality, in which public institutions and the public square are cleansed of preferential treatment accorded to any religion, and where freedom of expression is enjoyed without discrimination by individual citizens. This should be a national interest. Quebec employees who are not in positions of authority should have their freedom to wear religious symbols respected. Atheists putting up advertisements on the other side of the country should have their access to market guaranteed. The fight for religious and secular expression is one and the same. That is the real meaning of secularism.

Justin Trottier and Kevin Smith are Founder and President of the Centre for Inquiry Canada.