I spent a few lovely days in Quebec last week and saw an amazing political spectacle in “la Belle Province” that is barely showing up in the press here in Ontario.
Quebec premiere Pauline Marois recently announced that, in a few weeks, the Parti Quebecois will introduce the “Charter of Quebec Values” which will be used to ban all public displays of religious symbols. So if you are a public employee (nurse, teacher, cop, politician, municipal worker, etc.) you cannot wear any kind of “religious sign.” This includes a cross on a necklace, a turban, ring, anything with religious meaning. All to underscore what it thinks is a fundamental value of Quebec’s culture: religious neutrality.
“For the public service to be neutral, there has to be the appearance of neutrality,” wrote Daniel Baril, head of the Quebec Secular Movement, in Montreal’s Le Devoir. “A state that declares itself secular and then leaves its employees free to promote their religious belief, it’s like a restaurant that declares itself non-smoking but leaves those who work there free to smoke.”
The problems with this kind of legislation are legion. For starters, consistency is completely impossible. Despite it’s religious meaning, the PQ are planning to leave the crucifix on the wall behind the speaker’s chair in this same Quebec legislature because of its “cultural significance.” They also announced that Christmas and Easter will also continue to be observed as “civic holidays.” I’m not making this up. The contradiction is hard to fathom but they are going to try to go ahead with it.
In a similar way, earlier this year, Quebec’s Soccer Association banned players of all ages – Timbit (5 years old) on up – from wearing turbans . The rest of the nation was outraged and the QSA finally relented in June after the Canadian Soccer Association overruled them. At the time, Dr. Charles Taylor, who in 2008 wrote a report on the provinces accommodation of minorities, was shocked by the attempt. The idea of a blanket ban on the wearing religious symbols “is like something we would see in Putin’s Russia,” he said.
An even bigger problem with legislation like this is that it is a clear violation of Canadian and International Law. Article 18 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees that, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to … manifest his/her religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Religious expression is also guaranteed using similar wording in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Section 5 of the Constitution Act (1982) (Article 2a). This legislation stands no chance in any higher court, Supreme Court or otherwise but its biggest problem is a logical one.
The presupposition of a religiously neutral society is logically contradictory – it cannot stand on its own weight. All you have to do is ask a simple question, “Why?” The question, “Why should Quebec be a religiously neutral province?” can only be answered by proposing some, far from neutral proposition, such as, “because displaying religions signs, promotes a particular ideology which claims to be morally superior.” In turn, Marois and her political party are making an ideological claim that their understanding of religious symbolism is superior to that of a Catholic nurse, or a Muslim municipal worker. In the end, they are guilty of the very thing they are trying to oppose: moral imperialism!
For the same reason, a morally neutral position is logically impossible. The idea that we need to remove religious or spiritual thinking from the public square is a project that is flawed from the start. The minute you ask the question “why?” you have to use a moral authority to justify your reasoning. We need a better way to consider religious thinking.
A healthy society prefers truth to lies, love to hatred, honour to dishonour and justice to injustice. While it’s true that we have difficulty translating high ideas like this into everyday life, the only way to support truth, honour, love and justice is through rational dialogue, not imperialist policies. John Milton wrote that “when there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men, is but knowledge in the making.” (see Article 24 of Milton’s Areopagitica)
Vigorous intellectual discussion is essential for a healthy society but those who claim to have “morally neutral values,” insist that no one’s beliefs can be challenged, and by design they suppress free speech. If you try to assume that human discourse can be conducted from a value-neutral stance, what you’re saying is that this value-neutral stance cannot be questioned. This requires that metaphysical truth is either unimportant or non-existent which means that your “value-neutral stance” is worthless too.
The real problem for Quebecers is that opinion polls suggest that policies like this enjoy broad public support in Quebec. Polls show that the majority of Quebecers support a turban ban and also view hijabs and kippas as a cultural threat. Marois’s minority government stands to benefit from illogical and racist policies like this, and might just make this an election issue in an attempt to consolidate power.
Quebec’s nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to try to have an opinion there.