Do you wear something – anything – that indicates a religious inclination? Does it bother you if someone else does? Is that something government can regulate?
These questions are the subject of intense debate in Quebec and (to a lesser extent) the rest of Canada, thanks to something called the Quebec Charter of Values, unveiled this past Tuesday by the Parti Québécois. (See actual party website, in French only, here. A Wikipedia entry, in English, is here.)
There are so many articles, blogs and reactions to that proposal across Canada that it’s hard to know where to begin, or where to end. Outside of Quebec, at least, the reaction is overwhelmingly negative. But outside of Quebec much of Canada bears little love for the PQ anyway, which is part of this story.
How about starting with what it is, who proposed it and why? Here’s a good summary article from the BBC. The National Post covers the same topic in greater detail here, and says the measure is still a proposal but will be tabled as a bill in the fall.
In short, the measure attempts to foster a secular province, where public sector employees would be prohibited from wearing conspicuous signs of religious affiliation. (In Quebec this would include most teachers, medical personnel, day care workers, police, government office workers, etc.)
Forbidden items would include all manner of Muslim headgear, Sikh turbans, and Jewish skull caps. Large crosses or crucifixes would also be prohibited. While that may sound somewhat religious-neutral (if heavy-handed) at first glance, critics say that it’s bad policy and the actual details defy coherent justification.
This summary list from CBC is noteworthy for what would not be prohibited or changed:
Remove religious symbols and elements considered “emblematic of Quebec’s cultural heritage.” That includes: the crucifixes in the Quebec legislature and atop Mount Royal in Montreal, the thousands of religiously based geographic names (e.g. Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha!) and the names of schools and hospitals.
Ban public sector employees from wearing small religious symbols like a ring with a Star of David, earrings with the Muslim crescent or a necklace with a small crucifix.
Eliminate subsidies to religious private schools. The Quebec government currently funds about 60 per cent of the budgets of most of the province’s private schools, including parochial ones.
Ban opening prayers at municipal council meetings, which was recommended by the 2008 Bouchard-Taylor Commission report into cultural accommodation. The Quebec Court of Appeal ruled in May that such prayers do not necessarily violate Quebec’s current human rights legislation.
Eliminate property tax exemptions for churches, mosques, synagogues and other religious buildings.
Canada’s federal government is watching this carefully. On the one hand, fighting about social issues in Quebec tends to be nothing but trouble. On the other hand, the proposal arguably conflicts with fundamental provisions protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The PQ’s Pauline Marois is the Premier of Quebec, but she heads a minority government, which means measures cannot pass without support from at least one other party. So far that seems unlikely, so why push such a divisive issue?
This analysis piece by James Fitz-Morris discusses larger issues of “political gamesmanship”, and points out that the PQ is not troubled by charges of inconsistency:
“The crucifix is there to stay, in the name of history, in the name of heritage,” according to Bernard Drainville, Quebec’s minister of democratic institutions, the man charged with navigating the new charter through the national assembly.
Meanwhile Drainville is also on record as hoping the policy will be adopted by the private sector as well. “We think private businesses will, essentially, guide themselves from now on with the guidelines that we are giving them, that we are putting into the charter.”
Canada is a nation that courts and welcomes immigrants from around the world and makes a strong effort to promote and protect multi-culturalism. For example, Sikhs have won the right to wear the turban even as uniformed members of the RCMP, police or military. (Uncut hair covered by a turban is a tenant of faith for male Sikhs.)
Indeed, as reported by Global News, at least one hospital in Ontario wasted no time in wooing potentially disaffected Quebec medical professionals:
“We don’t care what’s on your head. We care what’s in it,” the ad, released by Lakeridge Health in Oshawa, Ont., reads. It depicts a woman wearing a hijab and a stethoscope.
France is a nation that places a high value on secularism, establishing that preference in law as long ago as 1905. Arguments about that policy arise to this day, as with a recently proposed secularism charter for schools.
Of course, individual cases of religious appearance and practices do arise in the U.S., as with some Mennonites objecting to photo IDs. Or this 2009 USA Today article about US states with laws that prohibit religious attire in schools. (I don’t know if those laws are still in effect.)
On the whole, though, effort to legislate blanket prohibitions on personal expression and appearance would be almost inconceivable in the U.S., given the constitutional protections of religion and expression.
Do you see value in promoting public secularism? Or do you feel religious freedom represents a higher value to protect?