The Coalition Avenir Quebec Introduces Bill Banning Religious Symbols for Public Workers

The CAQ government has introduced a secularism bill (Bill 21) that will prohibit many public sector workers from wearing religious symbols. It also blocks their ability to challenge the bill over rights violations. The legislation would affect elementary and high school teachers, judges, police officers, prison guards, prosecutors, and others.

According to reporting by The National Post (March 28, 2019), Immigration, Diversity, and Inclusiveness Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette said Bill 21 is an affirmation of Quebec’s distinctiveness and its decades-long drive to separate church and state. Jolin-Barrette said that, for the Quebec state to be truly secular, it cannot employ people who exercise authority while wearing religious symbols.

Civil rights groups (forgetting the civil rights of everybody else) have claimed that the legislation violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and contradicts protections in the provincial Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. However, these documents contain provisions allowing governments to pass laws overriding those rights (it has successfully done so dozens of times). It is difficult to see any avenue in the courts for those who wish to challenge this bill if it passes.

Except for the pro-Quebec independence Bloc Québécois, all the major parties in Canada’s federal parliament—Liberal, Conservative, and NDP—have denounced the CAQ bill as a transparent and demagogic attempt to promote Canadian nationalism. Canada’s political culture is rooted in civic nationalism. Not all nationalism is the same. Conflating ethnonationalism with civic nationalism is globalist rhetoric. Moreover, as a nation, Quebec is recognized as having the authority to determine its future and character. What’s wrong with promoting Canadian nationalism?

Expected claims of religious bigotry fall flat, as well. “It is unthinkable that a free society would legitimize discrimination against anyone on the basis of religion,” declared the Prime Minister and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau. But it’s not religious discrimination to separate religion from the public function. Indeed, that’s the meaning of religious liberty.

Religious liberty is enshrined in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. In the United States, one is free to practice his religion at his home, in his church, or walking around town. There is cause for public concern when individuals exploit positions of authority to peddle religious beliefs and practices. If this work is public or in a place of public accommodations, then religious uniforms are inappropriate. The public has an expectation that these places will be kept neutral by law and custom. Government rightly becomes involved when the exercise of religion becomes an imposition on other citizens.

To be sure, Canada is not the United States. However, our First Amendment is the paradigmatic instantiation of religious liberty. Tragically, even here, the meaning of religious freedom has been twisted to compel the government to enable, facilitate, promote, and tolerate religious ideology and practice in public employment. We can learn a lot from the CAQ.

In principle, a truly secular state must not privilege some ideologies over others. It doesn’t matter whether it is a religious or some other type of ideology. Religion was specifically mentioned in the US Bill of Rights because the founders were particularly concerned about its insidious effects on politics. So concerned, in fact, that they forbade the government from respecting an establishment of religion and from prohibiting its free exercise. Religion peddlers ignore the first and warp the second part. Exploiting positions of authority to promote religion is not its free exercise. It is a violation of the religious liberty of everybody else.

Demanding to wear religious costuming at work is the same as a Nazi or a Klan member demanding that he be permitted to perform his public duties dressed in an SS uniform or while wearing a white bed sheet. He is of course free to wear his costume at home or walking about. These are within his privacy and speech rights. But he will be told to leave his costume at home while he is teaching an elementary school class, because the children and his fellow workers have rights, too. Indeed, the Ku Klux Klan is a religious sect (and so are Nazis when you get right down to it). Is anybody prepared to defend a right to wear Klan robes while working in a place of public accommodations? Alongside black employees? Alongside Catholic employees? That would be not merely offensive, but harassing.

To treat the expression of religious ideology differently from other ideologies in a place of public accommodations is giving religion a privilege over other standpoints. Permitting the promotion of religion in public spaces reflects neither the neutrality nor the protection that liberty demands and affords citizens in a free society.

It is the same for a feminist or a gay man who has to work alongside a person whose religious costuming represents an ideology that sees women as second-class citizens and homosexuals as abominations as it is for a black man or a Catholic to have to endure a Klan member in full regalia. Would we allow a Muslim to harass a gay man at work? Not even in a society in which the freedom of speech is enshrined in the very same amendment that puts religious liberty central to our governmental arrangements and workings would we allow that. Yet we allow this individual to work draped in the symbol of compulsory heterosexuality.

This is why the argument advanced in the clip below by communitarian philosopher and Quebecer Charles Taylor is so awful. He lifts the site of individual liberty to the level of the group by confusing human rights with cultural and social understandings. Put another way, he reduces the individual to the context supplied by sociocultural order not merely to understand their life choices but as a position from which to consider their legal rights. He rejects the secularization thesis not merely due to its failures (this in substantial part due to the rot of cultural pluralism over against human rights advanced by multiculturalists like Taylor) but because he sees religious understandings (plural as they are) to be the grounds for regarding persons. We are not, in his view, all members of the human family, as the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims, but members of tribes. This stance erases the person. The irrational character of such a standpoint is exposed by simply pointing out that the same argument can be made in favor of tolerating fascism and racism. This is how he can identify Islamophobia as the big challenge facing Canadians rather than warning his audience of the actual challenge to free and open societies, namely Islam.

Communitarian Philosopher Charles Taylor

Religious liberty is the bedrock of a free and secular society. We have religious zealots pushing their religious beliefs and practices in our public institutions and places of accommodations. The level of religious imposition and proselytizing has become such that governments of free states are going to have to act with laws and administrative policies to take up the slack of a normative system pressed by identity politics. Ideally all people living in the West should come to an understanding of the importance of religious liberty and the expectation that newcomers assimilate to and respect this norm. Unfortunately, this is not happening. Instead, we suffer ideologues subverting western liberal values and using the rhetoric of rights to peddle irrational and oppressive ideological systems.

I applaud the CAQ government taking this bold step and hope to see Bill 21 passed into law.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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