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No to Pauline Marois’ secular charter

Written by Alain Pilote on Tuesday, 01 October 2013. Posted in Quebec

No need to ban religious symbols for civil servants No to closed secularism that forbids any religion

On September 10, 2013, Pauline Marois, Premier of the Province of Quebec and leader of the Parti Quebecois, accompanied by Bernard Drainville, the minister responsible for Democratic Institutions, unveiled her proposal of a "charter of Quebec values", which aims at banning "overt" religious symbols for civil servants, in order to "safeguard the neutrality of the State."

This charter states that judges, police officers, prosecutors, public daycare workers, teachers, or hospital workers — while they are on the job — can not wear overtly religious objects (Muslim head scarves, Jewish skullcaps, Christian crosses or medals, etc.) "Conspicuous" symbols would not be allowed, but very small symbols (like rings or earrings) would be. As a member of parliament noted, "Who will determine if a symbol is conspicuous or not, is too big or overtly religous or not? Will there be religious police officers to check around the necks of civil servants what is allowed and what isn't? Will they have to carry a tape to measure the sizes of crosses, medals, etc.?"

On November 7, 2013, this proposed charter of values was tabled at the National Assembly (Quebec Parliament) as Bill 60, and was titled the "Charter affirming the values of state secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests." The September proposal remained practially unchanged, and even more strict. The text of the bill specifies that "in the exercise of their functions, personnel members of public bodies must not wear objects such as headgear, clothing, jewelry or other adornments which, by their conspicuous nature, overtly indicate a religious affiliation."

Immediately after its unveiling in September, this charter has triggered a flood of reactions throughout the province, including the vast majority of the State employees who do not see the necessity for such a ban. Even three former Quebec premiers and leaders of the Parti Quebecois said that Mrs. Marois was going too far, and should not ban religious signs. However, this has not made her back down.

A real blow against this bill came on October 17 when the Quebec Human Rights Commission, led by Jacques Fremont, a constitutional expert appointed by the PQ last spring, issued a 27-page report explaining that the proposed charter was a violation of the Quebec's Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms (voted by the Quebec National Assembly in 1975), a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (voted by the House of Commons in 1982), and of course, a violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (voted by the United Nations in 1948). Fremont added that this "charter of values" proposed by the PQ would not stand up to a legal challenge. "The courts would rip it to shreds," he said.

The report explains that "the proposed prohibition stems not only from a misconception regarding freedom of religion as protected by the Charter and by the principles of international human rights law, but it also misinterprets the neutrality requirement that must be observed by the state." For the Commission, this "religious neutrality requirement applies primarily to government institutions, but not to public sector employees."

"Freedom of religion is protected by Quebec's Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms: Section 3 guarantees fundamental freedoms, including freedom of conscience and religion, and Section 10 prohibits discrimination based on religion.

"The state's institutions must be neutral, not the individuals. Public service employees, as well as people using government services, have the right to freedom of religion and conscience.

"Wearing a symbol of one's religion does not mean a person is trying to impose his or her religion to others or is proselytizing. Wearing a religious symbol does not prevent an employee from doing his or her work in a neutral and impartial manner.

The state cannot use religious neutrality to justify banning a public service employee from wearing a "conspicuous" religious symbol in the workplace. On the contrary, the state's neutrality ensures people the right to practice their religion. Thus, asking a woman to take off her hijab when working in the public sector contravenes the Charter, as does asking a civil servant to remove his kippa or his turban."

The Parti Quebecois is in a minority position in the Quebec Parliament, and all the opposition parties have already said they will vote against this bill as it is now presented. So, since this bill would be rejected by the courts, and has no chance of becoming law under its present form, why does Pauline Marois persists with it? It is simply a crass political game to get votes at the next general election by making Quebecers believe that the PQ actually "stands up" for them to defend "Quebec's identity and values."

Excerpts from the debates in the Quebec Parliament on November 7, 2013, when Bill 60 was introduced, clearly shows this political game, with the following exchange beyween Jean Marc Fournier, parliamentary leader of the Liberal opposition, and Premier Marois.

Jean Marc Fournier: "This discriminatory dress code has been called by the Quebec Commission of Rights the most radicval attack on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms... In the name of religious neutrality, the PQ has decided to pass from a society where the citizens are free to practice their faith in a State that promotes or favors no particular religion, to a society in which the citizens are discriminated because of their faith, in a State that wants to abolish all religious phenomenon.

"According to the PQ, the neutrality of the State is so much in peril that individual rights and freedoms must be abolished. Yet, the Quebec Commission of Rights wrote: "The Commission... does not report a single situation in which the wearing of religious symbols by a public sector worker would have threatened the principle of religious neutrality."

Pauline Marois replied: "I think you and I must not be living on the same planet... What we are advocating is the neutrality of the State... This does not infringe on the rights of anyone because freedom of speech and freedom of religious expression will be respected by all Quebecers, by the government, and by our institutions."

How can Pauline Marois seriously claim to "respect freedom of religious expression" while pushing legislation that would see public-sector employees fired for refusing to remove religious symbols? On "planet PQ", anything is possible...

Several commentators have noticed that this debate on Quebec's secular charter has become a trial where all religions are accused of being harmful to society. (Open-line programs, letters to newspapers and comments on social networks are there to prove it.) Political pundits accuse the PQ of encouraging and surfing on a wave of "fear of the stranger", of an alleged "Muslim peril" for Quebec.

This is totally dishonest for the PQ to promote this fear, for it is a mistake and a danger to demonize Islam, and to lump all the Muslims together. All Muslims are not members of Al Qaida! The vast majority of Muslims are peaceful and do not want to resort to violence; it is only a handful of radicals who have hijacked the whole of Islam and are using it for their own political purpose, by interpreting the Koran in a fundamentalist way, since some of its verses, taken out of context and wrongly interpreted, might indeed seem to justify the use of violence against Christians and Jews.

On this issue of Islamic fundamentalism, Pope Francis wrote in his new Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel): "Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalisations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence." (n. 253.)

A few line further, talking about religious freedom in Western societies, Pope Francis added: "The respect due to the agnostic or non-believing minority should not be arbitrarily imposed in a way that silences the convictions of the believing majority or ignores the wealth of religious traditions. In the long run, this would feed resentment rather than tolerance and peace." (n. 255.)

Other penetrating observers noticed that it is not only the Islamic faith that is targeted by this charter of the PQ government, but all religions in general are being attacked, including the Roman Catholic Church. When one hears Minister Drainville say, about day care centers: "We have decided to protect children who are more easily influenced and more vulnerable... We do not want children to be exposed to any religious influence," it really shows, among the PQ government, contempt for any religious belief.

In an interview with the Canadian Press published on September 13, 2013, Most Rev. Pierre Andre Fournier, Archbishop of Rimouski and President of the Assembly of Quebec Roman Catholic Bishops, stated:

"The Bishops of Quebec worry about this debate on the charter of values drifting. There is a grave danger: anti-religious militantism threatens much more Quebec's identity than an openeing to religions... The issue of the Muslim veil creates a diversion from the fundamental issue, which is the real meaning of neutrality of the State. It is like a magician: the attention of the people is drawn to one direction, whereas the real thing, the trick, is taking place elsewhere."

A pluralist Quebec

One year before the presentation of this secular charter, the Roman Catholic Bishops of the Province of Quebec had already defined the problem at stake — a frontal attack against religion — in their pastoral message called Catholics in a pluralist Quebec, published in November, 2012:

"Among those who describe themselves as'without religion'there are surely some who share the secularist view that religion simply has no relevance, and who do not concern themselves with it. Among them we will also find people who explicitly describe themselves as atheists ('there is no God') and others who are agnostics ('it is impossible to prove either the existence or the non-existence of God'). These are currents of thought that have and have always had serious proponents, with whom believers can and must enter into respectful discussion.

"However, it is not those currents of thought (which we might call'classic') that tend to make headlines nowadays in Québec or elsewhere around the world, but rather a militant anti-religious position that strongly opposes religion and its place in the public square. Among the arguments cited in support of that militant ideology, one often finds the following:

• Religion is a purely private matter. The public sphere ought therefore to be free of every trace of religion.

• Religion is a backward and outmoded phenomenon. The progress of science and civilization ought to result in its disappearance since religion consists of nothing but superstitions, beliefs and taboos that hinder people from reaching their full potential and real autonomy.

• Religion is a tool to create, impose, maintain and justify patriarchal and discriminatory power structures. Its influence must therefore be limited as much as possible in order to protect rights and freedoms.

• Religions are by definition sources of divisions and hatred. Despite their words of peace and brotherhood, they always lead to violence and war.

What is "laicity"?

"The debates that have been taking place for several years now have demonstrated that there are several interpretations of the words "non-confessional" and "laicity" (laïcité)1. Not everyone is speaking of the same thing when they use these words; and by all appearances, not everyone has the same notion of how the notion of laicity should be implemented.

An institution is described as non-confessional, and is characterized by laicity, if it is independent of any religious belief. It neither favours nor discriminates against any church or religious group in particular. For their part, churches and religious groups have no power within such an institution.

"The use of the word laicity to designate something that is'not concerned with or devoted to the service of religion'may seem novel for many Catholics who are more familiar with a traditional meaning of the word'lay', namely'belonging to the'people as contradistinguished from the clergy'. This traditional meaning refers to the'laity,'that is, the baptized in general who are not members of the clergy, and not to the laicity which is now being debated in Quebec.

"Laicity is a notion that is applied to institutions, and not to society as a whole. Indeed, society is made up of people with every kind of conviction, belief, spirituality and religious adherence, and religious organizations too are part of society. Thus it is characterized by'pluralism'rather than'laicity'.

"Moreover, one must not confuse laicity with opposition to religion, a mistake that is sometimes made in the heat of debate. In a truly non-confessional context, there can no more be an official atheism than there can be an official religion.

Religion in the public square

"From its very beginnings, Christianity has been a movement that made itself visible in the public square. As is well known, Jesus drew crowds; he went about the villages and towns of Galilee, Judea and the surrounding regions, and people came to him from all over. At the time of his last visit to Jerusalem, he was welcomed by a joyful throng, and crucified in a public place the following Friday. A few weeks later, filled with the Holy Spirit, the apostle Peter proclaimed the resurrection of Christ to a crowd of pilgrims that had come to Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost, and to that same crowd the proclamation of the Good News rang out in every language.

"In subsequent centuries, public spaces have hosted Christian symbols and monuments, as well as expressions of faith like processions and traditional stations of the cross. The Church sees herself as a community open to the world, not a shadowy and secret cult, even though there have been – and, alas, continue to be – persecutions and tyrannies that condemn the faithful, for a time, to a clandestine existence or to exile.

"New gestures, symbols and practices unfamiliar to Quebec society are now joining the existing manifestations and symbols of the Christian faith. This presents a welcome challenge: to create an open and hospitable public sphere, where the values and beliefs of everyone can be expressed in mutual respect.

"Though this is a challenge, it is also an opportunity – an opportunity to grow as a community, and to blaze a trail that other societies, led by the example of Quebecers, can follow.

"Earlier generations of Catholic Quebecers could not have imagined living in an unmistakably pluralist society. This means that we have to learn new ways of being Catholic Christians in a society that no longer necessarily sees itself in us.

"To be Catholic, in a pluralist society and in a world of communication and networking, is to be called to come face-to-face with difference: differences in faith, differences in religious practice (or no such practices at all), differences of conviction and opinion. Our attitude must be one of welcome, openness, respect and kind listening." (End of the excerpts from the document of the Quebec Bishops.)

"These people revile what they do not understand." (Jude 1:10); one could say the same thing about the Quebecers who are ashamed of their past and think that the Roman Catholic faith is responsible for all the evils, whereas it is precisely Christianity that has built our present civilization.

Quebec's motto is Je me souviens (I remember); but Quebecers remember what precisely nowadays? Do they remember their ancestors who came from France to found a Christian country in the New World by planting the Cross? Do they remember the founders of this new country were martyrs and saints?

In this debate on the secular charter proposed by Pauline Marois, a false understanding of the separation of Church and State is at the root of the problem: in this case, it is the State that invades the religious domain and infringes on religious rights by banning religious symbols. Far from making living together easier, this charter divides people more than ever. NO to closed secularism that wants to eliminate from the public square all religious expression, but YES to open secularism that respects religious freedom and the heritage of faith of 400 years left by our ancestors.


1.) Translator’s note: There is a subtlety in the French expressions laïque and laïcité that can be challenging to capture in English; laïcité is widely used, as in this document, in a descriptive, nonpejorative way to designate the non-confessionality of institutions that operate without reference (either positive or negative) to religious identity and belief. Laïcité is sometimes translated as “secularism,” with an unfortunate negative connotation, or simply by the word “laicity” – a word which exists in English, originally meaning “the principles of the laity; the rule or influence of the laity; the fact of being lay” (Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition), but which is no longer in widespread use. “Laicity” has the shortcoming that its adjectival form would presumably be “lay”, which could be confusing: a “lay institution” is not exactly what is meant by an institution laïque. In this translation I have opted to translate laïcité as “laicity” and laïque as “non-confessional.” The
latter has been widely used in Québec, for instance to describe the new regime of school boards that followed the deconfessionalization of the public school system.

About the Author

Alain Pilote

Alain Pilote

Alain Pilote has been the editor of the English edition of MICHAEL for several years. Twice a year we organize a week of study of the social doctrine of the Church and its application and Mr. Pilote is the instructor during these sessions.


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