The Quebec provincial government has recently proposed legislation, referred to as the Quebec Charter of Values, with the primary aim of affirming a commitment to the values of State secularism and religious neutrality. Initially, I thought the proposal, which includes a number of measures meant to limit the influence religious beliefs and practices have on the functioning of government, seemed like a good idea. I have long thought there are a number of good arguments supporting the policy of keeping church and state separate (as far as is reasonably possible at least). One major problem that arises when religion does take a central role in political processes is that, very often, it is just one denomination that wields the greatest influence, despite the presence of a wide range of other religions that are endorsed by citizens. Further, it should come as no surprise that the infiltration of one religion in political processes often has a negative impact on the others. Allowing the religious symbols and prayers of certain denominations in public institutions, or officially recognizing and celebrating certain religious holidays, seems to privilege one religion and unjustifiably imposes the recognition of such practices on those citizens who have no affiliation with this religion. For countries that highlight the importance of the freedom of religion and the freedom of thought, allowing one religion to be given privileged status by the government is completely unwarranted. Of course in Canada, the religion that has had, and continues to have, the most influence within society and government is Christianity, and in Quebec Catholicism plays a very influential role in Quebec culture and society. Allowing (or even demanding) Christian prayer, or the recognition and celebration of religious holidays in public institutions has been part of Canadian history, and it has always seemed to me rather dubious to permit such a thing. There just doesn’t seem to be a good justification for the highlighting of some religious practices and symbols while not doing the same for the multitude of other religious practices and symbols that are adhered to in Canada. Non-Christian Canadians are seemingly forced to at least passively participate in religious practices while in the public domain. Further, if we allow Christianity to play such a role in the public sphere, there appears little justification for not affording those from other religions from expressing and celebrating their religious practices and beliefs in the same way.
It is only fair, then, that if we are to limit the influence of religion in the public sphere, we ought to apply this to all religious practices. It is here where it seems the proposed Quebec Charter of Values badly fails. Among other things, the proposal would restrict public sector employees – including civil servants, provincial court judges, teachers, police, and health-care personnel – from wearing “ostentatious” religious symbols while working. Included in this group are the hijab, turban, kippa and large visible crucifixes. There are a number of exceptions on these restrictions, and a few are worth mentioning. First, the proposal will not restrict smaller, less ostentatious religious symbols, like a necklace with a crucifix or the star of David, or earrings with the Muslim crescent. It is worth noticing that from the list of restricted symbols mentioned above, it is only the crucifix that can be adapted to accord with Charter policy. The second exception is that the Charter will not require the removal of those religious symbols believed to be “emblematic of Quebec’s cultural heritage.” This exemption includes the crucifixes in the Quebec legislative buildings and atop Mount Royal in Montreal, as well as the names of numerous geographic locations and buildings. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of these exemptions are applicable to Christianity alone. And finally, the Charter will not eliminate subsidies provided by the Quebec government to private religious schools or affect the publicly funded Catholic schools throughout Quebec. Once again, while the reach of the non-Christian religions seems deeply impacted by the proposed Charter, Christianity generally and Catholicism specifically are given a number of exemptions that allow for their presence in the public sphere to remain on a broad and influential scale. Such exceptions seem to allow for, and even protect, the very influence of religious belief and practice in the public sphere that the Charter appears aimed at limiting. Of course the issue is a great deal more complicated then I have made it here, but in terms of separating the state from religion, the restrictions put forward in the proposed Charter of Values target non-traditional Canadian religions while allowing for a number of exceptions for those religions considered more aligned with Quebec tradition and culture. This seems inconsistent at best, and intentionally discriminatory at worst. If those religious practices and symbols that have been prominent in Quebec tradition and culture are to be treated differently from practices and symbols that aren’t, perhaps it is more appropriate for the proponents to describe the Charter of Values as an attempt to separate our state from your religion.