The debate surrounding the proposed Charter of Quebec values continues apace. The most controversial part of the PQ government’s plan is the measure that would prohibit employees in the public and parapublic sectors from wearing conspicuous religious symbols. While there is a broad consensus in favour of an official declaration of the religious neutrality of the state and the need to establish clearer guidelines governing requests for accommodation, the ban on wearing overt religious symbols has aroused strong opposition, even from within the ranks of the sovereignist movement.

Bernard Drainville, Quebec’s minister responsible for democratic institutions and active citizenship, maintains that such a ban is necessary to ensure the religious neutrality of the state. As I have explained elsewhere, what really counts is the neutrality of standards and public decision-making. Civil servants, teachers, caregivers and educators should neither proselytize nor allow their religious beliefs to sway their professional judgment, an injunction they can easily follow while wearing a religious symbol.

Those who, like Drainville, seek to offer a rational justification for the prohibition of overt religious symbols tend to advance two arguments. The first is that of ”reasonable sacrifice,” the idea that asking a religious person not to wear an overt religious symbol at work is a moderate requirement, insofar as these persons remain free to practise their religion when they are not exercising their professional duties. The second argument involves an analogy with political symbols: state employees have a duty of discretion when it comes to expressing their political beliefs at work. As the state must remain neutral with respect to religion, so the argument goes, this duty of discretion extends to the expression of religious beliefs, including wearing overt religious symbols.

I would maintain that these two arguments are based on a poor understanding of freedom of conscience and religion. We know that the principles of tolerance and freedom of conscience played an essential role at the beginning of the modern era in the process of pacifying a Europe rent by religious conflict. There is every reason to believe that due recognition of freedom of conscience and religion remains one of the keys to social cooperation and solidarity in today’s context of great moral, cultural and religious diversity.

Advocates of the general ban on wearing religious symbols in the public and parapublic sectors maintain that it is completely reasonable to ask employees to refrain from wearing their religious symbols while they are exercising their professional functions. They remain free to practise their religion in their private and community life, but their duty of discretion requires them to put aside their chosen religious symbol. Drainville has made this point repeatedly. It is a perspective shared by constitutional experts such as Henri Brun and Caroline Beauchamp, who advised the government.

This view regards the requirement that a religious person remove their religious symbol while at work as a reasonable sacrifice. This vision reflects a particular relationship with religion, one that is deeply rooted in Christian thought. Consider, for example, the Augustinian appeal to shift the focal point of faith: “Return to yourself, for in the interior man dwells the truth.”

Another case in point is the schism in Christianity brought about by the Protestant Reformation, which also promoted a recentring of faith around the spiritual quest. Christians were encouraged to discover God’s word through their own devices and doubt was cast both on the authority of the Catholic clergy and on the ostentatious character of its symbols and rituals. The faithful were urged to find their own way to divine truth rather than blindly following the dictates of Rome.

It’s easy to understand the appeal of this vision: if I were a believer, I would undoubtedly see faith above all as a spiritual journey and a personal quest for transcendence. This mode of religiosity is more consonant with the principle of autonomy or the free use of reason. As sociologists of religion have shown, the phenomenon of “Protestantization,” or the individualization of belief, is widespread today in the Western world.

That being said, many religious believers contend that divesting themselves of their religious symbols while at work is simply not an option. There is the case, for instance, of the Sikh emergency physician who said he would have no choice but to resign rather than remove his turban. Men who wear the kippa and women who wear the hijab have echoed that assertion. They would feel they were betraying themselves if they were to remove their head covering. Some Catholics may still harbour similar feelings in relation to the cross. To ask a religious believer to abandon in the workplace a dress code that they consider essential is like asking a vegetarian to set aside their ethical convictions while on the job.

For millions of faithful throughout the world, religion is not only a system of belief but also a way of life comprising deeds, practices and symbols that help them live their faith more fully. For them, beliefs and practices are indivisible. Where faith in doctrine is strong, orthodoxy is also orthopraxy.

It seems reasonable to ask Minister Drainville and his fellow supporters of the ban to take a step back and consider the possibility that what is at issue here is the imposition of one way among others of being religious: a kind of “religious correctness.” Granting legitimacy to only one mode of religiosity amounts to a poor understanding of freedom of conscience. In order to live together in a diverse society, we must accept not only religious diversity but also a plurality of forms of religious experience. Of course, not all believers feel obliged to wear religious symbols. And many vegetarians are in practice “flexitarians.” What of it? The goal of freedom of conscience and religion is to allow us to determine for ourselves, within reasonable limits, the convictions and commitments that make our lives meaningful.

Supporters of the government’s position put forward a complementary argument based on an analogy between religious and political symbols: namely, that it is legitimate to ask state employees to refrain from expressing their political opinions while they are carrying out their professional functions. Public administration must be neutral; its role is to implement the decisions made by the government. Accordingly, teachers should not try to indoctrinate their students and hospital employees should not preach to patients. Some maintain that the same logic should apply to religious opinions. Since the state and its representatives must remain neutral with respect to religion, and since wearing a religious symbol is an expression of religious belief, it is reasonable to prohibit those symbols, just as it is reasonable to censure the expression of political beliefs.

Let’s start by granting the tenability of this line of argument. At first blush, the proposed analogy is plausible. The validity of an argument by analogy depends on the similarities and differences between the situations under comparison. In this case, there are enough similarities for the argument to be taken seriously.

The analogy with political symbols does not succeed in justifying restrictions on freedom of religion.

Ultimately, however, it is not persuasive. First of all, no one, perhaps apart from some eccentric types, feels duty-bound to wear a shirt or button with a political slogan on it in public at all times. As active citizens, we want to exercise freedom of expression in civil society, we want to have the right to assemble and demonstrate peacefully, we want the right to vote and run for political office, we value freedom of the press. The sole purpose of drawing a comparison here with the wearing of overt religious symbols is to justify their prohibition. Would anyone really feel that they were compromising their moral obligations or their view of what it means to lead a dignified life because they can’t wear a political button while they’re at work?  Rights and freedoms are based on the fundamental interests of the human person and not on contrived far-fetched scenarios.

If it could be shown that wearing an overt religious symbol is in and of itself a form of proselytism or an infringement of the neutrality of public institutions, the prohibition would be legitimate. But there has been no such demonstration. The question is not whether public and parapublic sector employees have a duty of discretion. No one denies that. Nor does anyone deny that there are limits to the religious freedom of these employees during working hours: they are forbidden from promoting their religion or allowing their religious beliefs to cloud their professional judgment, and it’s entirely possible they will be unable to practise their religion in quite the way they would like.

For instance, there is no absolute right to a prayer space at work. The nature of the job may make it impossible for an employee to take five short breaks during the day to pray. The work schedule may prevent an employee from leaving early on Friday to get home before sunset. State employees must deal with both men and women. Where the demand does not warrant it, it’s reasonable for the workplace cafeteria not to serve halal or kosher meals. Those who refuse to accept these conditions exclude themselves from jobs in the public and parapublic sectors.

Supporters of the ban on religious symbols also claim that an overt religious symbol worn by a state employee may upset some citizens who do not wish to be exposed to other people’s religions. A more sophisticated line of argument might hold that wearing a religious symbol is an expressive gesture and an indirect speech act that communicates beliefs at odds with a shared public ethic. These arguments, too, fail to withstand scrutiny.

First, we can be bothered by many things in our interactions with employees in the public and parapublic sectors. Putting up with aggravation is a necessary condition of social cooperation and peaceful coexistence. Happily, freedom of conscience and religion do not entail the right not to be exposed to other people’s appearances and beliefs that we may find disagreeable. If that were the case, tolerance and freedom of conscience would be a spur to the segregation of communities, a little along the lines of the “pillarization” model in the Netherlands, where for many years Catholics, Protestants and Social Democrats have all had their own separate social institutions.

Second, although wearing a religious symbol is clearly an expressive act laden with meaning, we must not attribute to that act an a priori unambiguous meaning in conflict with shared public values. For example, we often infer from the struggle of some women in Muslim countries against the imposition of the veil that the veil is necessarily a symbol of the domination of women by men. But this is a false inference. In a liberal democratic society such as Quebec, a Muslim woman may have other reasons for wearing the veil that are bound up with her faith and identity.  And we must not yield to a form of magical thinking that leads us to imagine that barring overt religious symbols from public institutions will somehow help women who are oppressed by men in their daily lives. Not only does the ban restrict the freedom of those who wish, of their own volition, to wear an overt religious symbol, but it does virtually nothing to help the most vulnerable women, who are scarcely represented in the public and parapublic sectors.

The analogy with political symbols does not succeed in justifying restrictions on freedom of religion or equal access to job opportunities in the public and parapublic sectors. Our civil and political rights safeguard our basic political interests, while freedom of conscience and religion protects the religious and secular convictions and commitments that endow human life with meaning. We can rightly be proud that our democratic institutions properly uphold both these rights and freedoms.

Photo: Shutterstock by freevideophotoagency

Jocelyn Maclure
Jocelyn Maclure is professor of philosophy at McGill University and holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Human Nature and Technology. He is president of the Commission de l’éthique en science et en technologie du Québec.

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