Following up on an electoral promise, the Quebec government recently announced its intention to adopt a charter which would prohibit the wearing of obvious religious symbols in the public service. This is very good news.
We wait eagerly for the government to clarify its intentions. But with what we know already, we can be optimistic that it will effectively solve a whole class of social problems related to religious accommodation. The charter will clearly establish a line of demarcation between, on the one hand, the freedom of religion of those who would display openly their allegiance to a particular religious community, and, on the other hand, the freedom of conscience of others – whether they be of the same religion, or a different one, or have no religion – who should not be forced to be exposed to such displays from the state and its representatives.
State employees must not under any circumstances display such symbols while they are on duty. These symbols may be worn while off duty, as well as by clients of public services. To require that visible religious symbols be removed while one is working as a representative of the state is a measure which protects the freedom of conscience of the citizenry as a whole, because it helps ensure the neutrality, and indeed the perception of neutrality, in the provision of public services. The wearing of an obvious religious symbol is a declaration – a non-verbal one, but very loud – of partisanship; such language is out of place in public institutions. This restriction does not threaten freedom of religious; on the contrary, it protects that freedom for everyone on an equal footing.
To illustrate, consider the following scenario: a teenage girl from a Muslim family is in difficulty because of conflicts with her parents who find that she is taking too many liberties for a girl of her age. Perhaps they want her to wear the veil, but she does not want to. Or perhaps the cause of the conflict is some other issue. Suppose that she arranges to see a social worker in a community health centre and, as luck would have it, the social work is wearing a Muslim veil. Even if the social worker's competence, impartiality and counselling skills are beyond reproach, her appearance labels her as a symbol of religious partisanship and cannot help but render the teenager ill at ease and probably incapable of discussing her problem. Allowing the social worker to wear the veil harms the teenager by preventing her from availing herself of a government service.
Of course the proposed charter is far from perfect. Firstly, its name "Charter of Quebec Values" is badly chosen. What, I ask, is a "Quebec value"? What we need is a Charter of Secularism, a charter which expresses values which have universal, human import, the values of the Enlightenment. Nevertheless, we must reject the unsubstantiated, even scurrilous idea that the term "Quebec values" is evidence of xenophobia allegedly endemic to Quebec. Secularism and the secularization of public institutions have played a major role in the Quebec political landscape for a long time now, and they constitute something of considerable value. When federal minister Jason Kenney prohibited the wearing of the niqab during citizenship ceremonies, his decision was controversial for sure, but was he widely accused of dastardly intentions for having pronounced the words "Canadian values" when explaining his decision?
Secondly, it has not been proposed that the crucifix be removed from the wall of the Quebec National Assembly in Quebec City. This object was installed there in the 1930s by the Duplessis government of the time, with the aim of consecrating its alliance with the Catholic Church. The presence of the crucifix in the most important venue of the Quebec state is a flagrant violation of secularism. It must be removed. Nevertheless, this drawback does not justify the complete rejection of the proposed charter. It would be very inconsistent for the Marois government to leave this crucifix where it is. It would be even more inconsistent to reject the necessary prohibition of religious symbols in the public service because of the failure to remove the crucifix.
And while we are at it, a Charter of Secularism worthy of the name should include several other major dispositions:
- Cut all public subsidies to privates schools, many of which are religious (or, at least, cut all public subsidies to religious private schools).
- Prohibit prayers during municipal council meetings everywhere in Quebec.
- Apply the Charter to all municipalities in Quebec.
- Put an end to religious accommodations for religious slaughter of animals. It is unacceptable that laws meant to prevent needless animal suffering should be suspended for religious reasons.
- Prohibit any mutilation of the human body without valid medical reasons and without the consent of the individual involved. Male circumcision is often unnecessary, while female genital mutilation is an extreme form of physical and violent abuse.
- Avoid all forms of religious accommodation in general. If an exception is made to a rule which applies to the population in general, it must be made for real reasons, not supernatural ones.
- Withdraw the Ethics and Religious Culture program, or at least make it optional for everyone, because this compulsory program constitutes a privilege granted to religions and i t propagates, within the public school system, the false notion that religion is necessary for morals and ethics.
- Withdraw completely all fiscal advantages, including municipal property tax exemptions, granted to religious institutions and members of religious orders.
We wait with great anticipation for the Quebec government to announce the precise wording of the proposed Charter. But already, the plan to forbid obvious religious symbols in public institutions is a promising start.
David Rand is president of Montreal-based Atheist Freethinkers