Boessenkool and Carroll: Quebec is imposing its own religion on the public
If you are a Muslim with a hijab, you must discard this portion of your identity and take on the identity preferred by the Quebec government.
By: Ken Boessenkool and Jamie Carroll
You don’t have to be a member of an organized religion to be deeply offended by the firing of a Quebec teacher for the supposed sin of expressing her religious identity; just recognize that the state’s faith ought never be treated as superior to anyone else’s.
Most members of organized religions were not surprised to hear the Supreme Court of Canada in the Saguenay, Quebec City Prayer decision argue that “Religion is an integral part of each person’s identity.” It should not surprise members of the major unorganized religions that this applies to them as well. As the Court also said, “the concepts of ‘belief’ and ‘religion’ encompass non-belief, atheism and agnosticism.”
Bill 21 is not only a blatant attempt to stamp out some forms of religious identity — laicity is right there in the title — it is even more offensive as an attempt to impose the Quebec government’s preferred religious identity on its citizens.
Between these extremes — the elimination and the imposition of religious identity by the state — there are broadly two approaches we can take when it comes to religious freedom and the state. The first is pluralism. Pluralism posits that belief systems can coexist. In a pluralist society you might have a Christian recite the Lords Prayer in Parliament on Monday, a Muslim quote the Quran on Wednesday, an atheist read Richard Dawkins on Thursday and a Confucius quote-fest on Friday. And Tuesdays? A group shrug by the agnostics.
A pluralist society is at ease with the coexistence of multiple religious identities. Just as we ought to be free to experience, express and celebrate our gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation within the private and public spheres, pluralists would have us freely experience, express and celebrate our religious beliefs within the private and public space. Religion, after all, can be no less part of our identity than those other things.
Pluralists see the separation of church and state as prohibiting the state from imposing or favouring a single religious perspective from the top down — and vice versa, as was the intention of the founders in the United States. But pluralism places no restrictions in how individuals experience, express or celebrate their religion from the bottom up, including in the public sphere. Religious freedom — both organized and unorganized — is truly free in a pluralist society.
The second approach is usually called secularism. Secularism widens the gap between the state and religious institutions. Secularism requires the state not just be neutral towards, but also abstain from, matters of religion. A secular society would exclude expressions of religion within the public square. No prayers, religious readings or even group shrugs in a secular parliament. The secular Supreme Court decision cited above, for example, told the City of Saguenay it had to abstain from prayer during, or before, council meetings.
A secular society places more restrictions on the experiencing, expressing and celebrating of religious identity. It allows such things in the private sphere but contemplates restrictions in the public sphere.
Secularists also see the separation of church and state as prohibiting the state from imposing or favouring a single religious perspective from the top down, but secularism starts down the slippery slope of placing restrictions on how individuals experience, express or celebrate religion from the bottom up.
In other words, religious freedom is almost certainly more constrained in a secular society.
If the Supreme Court of Canada is right (and we think it is) that non-belief is no less an expression of religious identity than being Catholic or Islamic or Jewish, then aren’t secularism’s constraints just state enforcement of non-belief within the public square? Secularism starts down the slippery slope of having a form of unorganized religion — non-belief in this case — crowd out organized religion.
And the slope slips quickly from there. It’s a short slip from disallowing prayer to disallowing public symbols of organized religion.
Which takes us to Quebec’s Bill 21. The least offensive (and no less offensive for that!) section of the bill is the “Prohibition on wearing religious symbols” which at least has the imprimatur of equally offensive treatment of organized religions. (And perhaps some unorganized religions: Is the common “fish with legs” Darwin meme also offside?) The bill strips many Quebecers of their religious identity. All other expressions of identity (gender, race, sexual orientation) are fine, to be celebrated.
But expressions of religious identity? Not so much.
And even here the bill is fundamentally hypocritical: when pressed on the rather prominent crucifix that hangs in the Quebec National Assembly, Premier Legault was perfectly content to pretend it stands there for its historical value, not its religious symbolism.
The next section of the bill lives up to the bill’s title: “An Act respecting the laicity of the state.” It is not enough for Quebec to ban religious symbols. This section picks out a particular religious expression — face covering — for special maltreatment.
Now, there are lots of legitimate reasons we can find to disapprove of some of the more extreme versions of face coverings in a public space. But those reasons are no more or less valid than the objections our Muslim friends would have to our Dutch Reformed Calvinism or atheism respectively.
And that’s the point. To crib a common line about freedom of speech, I may find what you believe or wear in the name of religion offensive, but I will defend to the death your right to believe or wear it.
But in Quebec, if you are a Muslim with a hijab, you must discard this portion of your identity and take on the identity preferred by the Quebec government. Supporters of this heinous law are explicit about that. One elected official said last week that Bill 21 means that a teacher must choose between her job and her religion. And if that doesn’t appall you as a Canadian — regardless of your political stripe – you’ve clearly not read much history.
Because that is what Bill 21 says it is: laicism. It is the stamping out of religious identity — in particular the Muslim identity — and replacing it with something else, something the Quebec government prefers.
And regardless of your faith or political persuasion, you should find that deeply disturbing.
Ken Boessenkool and Jamie Carroll are “retired” strategists from the very opposite ends of the political spectrum who clearly manage to find things to agree about from time to time.
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