A couple of days ago Jewish and Muslim groups in Quebec protested against a highly contested bill which would ban public sector employees from wearing any “overt” and “conspicuous” religious symbols including hijabs, yarmulkes, Sikh turbans, large crosses and crucifixes in public. This bill proposed by Parti Québécois government (which advocates national sovereignty for the province of Quebec) and entitled the charter of Quebec Values, was formally tabled at the Quebec parliament, the National Assembly last Thursday (Nov.7). The debate surrounding this bill hasn’t ceased since its first announcement on May. 22. Its official proposal, on Sept.10, thrust the debate even more to the forefront. It is not the first time that Quebec’s secularism has wrestled with the struggle between state religious neutrality and freedom of religion. Nonetheless it seems to be the first time that Quebec has opted for a more state neutral approach. This has unsurprisingly attracted extraordinarily wide contention and great waves of criticisms from all over the State.
In February 2007, Quebec’s previous liberal government organised a Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences (CCPARDC), led by Gerard Bouchard and Charles Taylor. After a one year round of research, they drew up a report in response to public discontent concerning reasonable accommodation and formulated their recommendations to the government to ensure that “accommodation practices conform to Quebec’s values as a pluralist, democratic and egalitarian society”. In that report, it was argued that secularism comprises four key principles. Two of the principles define the final purpose, i.e. the moral equality of persons and the freedom of conscience and religion. The other two principles are essential to achieve these purposes, i.e. State neutrality towards religions and the separation of Church and State. However, just as the tension between equality and liberty is the eternal dilemma bewildering political philosophers, in this case too tensions and dilemmas are likely to arise between state neutrality and freedom of religion and conscience. The commission came to the conclusion that “open secularism” which recognised that the state needs to be neutral but also acknowledges the importance of protecting individual’s freedom of conscience and religion best reconciled that tension, thereby realising the two aims of secularism.
May public employees wear religious symbols in the exercising of their duties according to “open secularism” ?
In tackling the issue regarding public employees wearing religious symbols, tensions within the “open secularism” camp have also arisen. Arguments for the proposal maintain that the evaluation of the agents of the state must be gauged according to their acts within their occupations. We have no justified reason to suppose that a state employee who wears a religious symbol would be more prone to display prejudice, perform less professionally or lacks sufficient loyalty to the State, when compared to someone who does not wear such symbols. Besides, children who are exposed to a diverse environment in which a variety of identity-representative symbols are manifested, including religious ones, may have a lower chance of being religiously intolerant when they grow up. On the other hand, arguments against the proposal maintain that sometimes the wearing of religious symbols, such as a full-body veil or a burka, may obstruct the employee’s performance when ample communication in their duties is needed. On reflection, they decided that a general rule which applies to all agents of the state is not necessary, while the prohibition of the wearing of religious symbols in a quite limited range of duties, i.e. the president and vice-president of the National Assembly, judges and Crown prosecutors, police officers and prison guards is more justifiable and conducive for the balance of contemporary Quebec society.
What has changed?
Five years later, the Parti Quebecois government not only largely mothballed the report, they also expanded the prohibition scope—from the boundaries drawn up by the committee — in the secular charter, meaning that the ban would also apply to civil servants, teachers, law enforcement officers, firefighters, doctors, nurses and public day care employees. This caused great indignation and discontent among many Muslims, Jews and Christians. The Executive Director of The National Council of Canadian Muslims, Ihsaan Gardee, regarded this as a violation of human rights, “in the absence of freedom of religion, the religious neutrality of the state is meaningless.” Not only does this secular charter exasperate religious groups, it also brings about a large discussion amongst legal experts about whether this charter is constitutional or, more fundamentally, legal.
The obvious message sent by the uniformed treatment charter is that Quebec currently wants more equality than liberty. However this is, as far as I am concerned, somewhat irrelevant. The real question is what has changed Quebec’s politicians’ minds, apart from the fact that Quebec’s government had undergone an change from liberal party to a national identity party? Does the incumbent government still share the same primary concerns as its predecessor, that is to say learning to live together and fostering mutual understanding and respect in such a diversified society? Aren’t the arguments used to support Bouchard-Taylor Commission’s settlement about that issue now untenable? What is more pertinent is not the decision to change a policy or principle itself, but the arguments and reasons, the justifications so to speak, underlying the radical change. If the PQ (Parti Québécois ) party does not disclose its arguments, other than stating the plain fact they did debate the issue, this matter will probably remain at the center of public opinions and legal debate for some time to come.