Pauline Marois

Quebec's Charter of Secularism would push religious believers out of public square

  • August 20, 2012

OTTAWA - A religious freedom expert warns the Parti Quebecois leader's proposed Charter of Secularism should the PQ win Quebec's provincial election Sept. 4 would violate the Charter and push many religious believers out of public service.

"Religions in Quebec have rights and one of these rights is not to be forced out of the public sphere by the beliefs of atheism and agnosticism dominating the public," said Iain Benson, a constitutional lawyer and international religious freedom expert.

Benson said he was "startled" by PQ Leader Pauline Marois' proposed Charter of Secularism that would prohibit government employees from wearing religious symbols such as hijabs, kirpans (ceremonial daggers required by baptized Sikhs), turbans and kippahs (or yarmulke, the skullcap worn by Jewish men). It would allow the wearing of an unobtrusive crucifix. Marois' Charter later clarified the crucifix in the National Assembly could also remain because it is part of Quebec's heritage, explaining moves towards ensuring state neutrality do not mean Quebeckers have to deny who they are.

"It would mean that only those who do not have an orthodox traditional view of their religious tradition could work in a public sphere setting while maintaining their beliefs about religious garb and that doesn't seem fair," Benson said. "We just need to get over the secularist prejudice that only religious people believe things. Everyone is a believer and not wearing religious symbols is an indication what one does not believe as much as wearing them indicates what one does."

Marois is not alone in her support for the crucifix or other Christian symbols as a nod to Quebec's past. Other leaders also chimed in to support it, including Liberal Leader and Premier Jean Charest.

Previously the Quebec National Assembly voted unanimously to keep the crucifix over the Speaker's chair despite recommendations it be removed by the Bouchard-Taylor Commission that investigated religious accommodation in the province.

Quebec's Catholic bishops will not be weighing in on the election, if at all, until later in September. The Quebec bishops have the matter on the agenda for their upcoming meeting, said a spokesman for the Assembly of Catholic Bishop of Quebec and no statement will be coming out before then. Assembly president Archbishop Paul-Andre Fournier has issued a pastoral letter urging Catholics to exercise their right to vote and to reflect seriously on the issues in light of Gospel values.

"The Catholic bishops have a difficult time in Quebec owing to historical over-reach by certain Catholics in the past when the Church was so dominant," said Benson. "This has left a very deep and lingering resentment in that province."

Benson urged religious leaders of all faiths, however, to be more vocal in defense of religious freedom and critical of secularism as "an anti-religious ideology."

"Quebec seems confused about the fact that the better understanding of 'secular' or 'public' is that it is or ought to be inclusive of all citizens, religious or non-religious," he said.

Benson said this confusion over definitions means that the anti-religious secularism comes up in the middle of the confusion and takes over.

History has shown iconoclasts have always tried to tear down the religious relics of previous eras, and the importance to cultures of various symbols will come and go, he said.

"The attempt by contemporary secularists in Quebec to keep religious icons emptied of their significance may be seen for what it is — a vain attempt to believe the crucifix empty of its deeper meanings just because they themselves don't believe them," he said.

Benson, who divides his time between France and Canada, notes Quebec seems to be following the policy of laicism in France where religious symbols are banned from the public service.

He does support bans on partial or full face-coverings for those dealing with the public or receiving public services.

"Where we are involved in working in the public sphere I believe all citizens have a right to see the face of other citizens," he said. "They don't have the right to demand that a person remove a turban or headscarf or yarmulke or cross but they can demand that they can see who they are dealing with."

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