Religion

Quebec helpfully shows how NOT to do secularism

There is currently a fair bit of controversy over the ruling separatist government’s plans to institute a “Charter of Quebec Values” [note: English version is incomplete and mostly still in French…quelle surprise] that would ostensibly put an end to the years-long question of what constitutes “reasonable accommodation” of religious minorities in the province.

The Marois government has framed the charter in terms of upholding a secular society in Quebec, and keeping religion separate from matters of state. Sounds great! Sign me up! I think we can all agree that separation of church and state is the bees knees.

But wait, what’s this you say? We’re keeping the giant crucifix in the National Assembly? Religious organisations still get to keep all their special tax breaks? And elected officials are exempt from all of the law’s requirements? Exactly how does this enforce secularism at all?

Ah, I see. We’re just purging state employees (including teachers) who happen to belong to minority religions. Good plan.

Lest you think I am exaggerating, let’s look at exactly what the proposed bill does (from this CBC analysis):

Would

  1. Bar public sector employees — including everyone from civil servants to teachers, provincial court judges, daycare workers, police, health-care personnel, municipal employees and university staff — from wearing a hijab, turban, kippa, large visible crucifix or other “ostentatious” religious symbols while on the job.
  2. Allow five-year opt-outs from the ban for certain organizations, but not daycare workers or elementary school teachers.
  3. Require that those receiving or providing government services uncover their faces.
  4. Exempt elected members of the Quebec legislature from the regulations.
  5. Amend Quebec’s human rights legislation, the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, to specify limits on when someone can stake a claim for religious accommodation.

Wouldn’t

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Eliminate property tax exemptions for churches, mosques, synagogues and other religious buildings.

While we’re at it, let’s just declare pork to be a “culturally integral national product” and require all public servants to eat a ham sandwich on Mondays. Keeping kosher or halal or vegetarian is, after all, just an ostentatious public display of values.

The official defense for this absurd violation of minority rights is that the French philosophy of secularism is different from the English one, and it’s not inherently worse to focus to focus policy on integration over pluralism.This argument is technically true: French secularism is distinct from the Anglo-American tradition and is much more rooted in the anti-clericalism of the French Revolution (and in Quebec, in resistance to many years of political and social domination by the Church).

And I might even be tempted to buy the argument if the charter contained any elements at all that actually targeted the Catholic Church. Banning “ostentatious crucifixes” doesn’t really cut it. If anything it seems to target (English-leaning) Italian and Greek communities, where such things are significantly more common than among the general population.

What’s most galling to me is that a (queer, leftist!) colleague of mine finds herself able to support this kind of targeted legislation on the grounds that, while she would prefer legislation that went further in severing the state’s religious ties (i.e. actually doing so at all), this kind of legislation is acceptable for now as a partial measure. As if somehow this is just a first step and the giant crucifix in the legislature is totally next on the chopping block once we take care of those troublesome Jewish schoolteachers.

Sorry, I don’t buy the “it just doesn’t go far enough” defense of the charter’s obvious and disproportional targeting of minorities. It’s like using “I don’t like civil marriage as an institution” to support gay marriage bans and pretending that one’s position is fair and consistent. At a certain point one has to acknowledge that citing an abstract general principle to support a targeted policy does nothing but provide cover to those motivated by bigotry.

Welcome to Hérouxville, everyone.

Featured image: Takashi Toyooka, with my added commentary.

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Dan

Dan

Dan has a PhD in historical musicology and has taught music history and theory at a major Canadian university. He mainly studies music from the Italian Renaissance when he's not busy performing stand-up comedy or playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. He occasionally tweets as @incontrariomotu and blogs about geeky stuff at The Otaku Skeptic. He is also the glorious editor-in-chief of School of Doubt.

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