AFT Blog # 35: Ban on Religious Symbols

The Ban on Wearing Religious Symbols:
Stop Equivocating and Take Decisive Measures

David Rand, 2013-10-14

Among various responses to the government’s proposed Charter of Quebec Values, the most controversial aspect is undoubtedly the prohibition on the wearing of obvious religious symbols by civil servants on duty. Opponents of this proposed ban have reacted inappropriately, sometimes with great hostility and excessive emotionality.

Defamatory and dishonest reactions must be rejected outright. Accusations of xenophobia, racism and totalitarianism are inadmissible and evidence of intellectual vacuity and bad faith. Moreover, opponents of the Charter allege that banning the wearing of religious symbols would be a serious infringement of freedom of religion, but they often “forget” to mention that this prohibition would only apply to public employees and only while on duty. Nevertheless, there are those who, in good faith, harbour concerns about such a ban. They do not fully understand its importance, or at least wonder whether the strict enforcement of the ban would be an exaggeration. It is with them that debate is possible.

Dress codes are not uncommon in the workplace. In one of my former jobs for example, beards were banned in those departments where frequent interaction with the public was part of the job description. But there was one exception: beards were still permitted for religious reasons. This is an example of a discriminatory privilege granted only to religions.

Those who oppose the ban on religious symbols support, whether consciously or not, discrimination in favour of state employees who are religious believers and against non-believers, that is, the privilege of being permitted an exemption from the dress code and allowed to wear whatever they want, provided that “whatever” is an object or garment which they themselves consider to be religious.

We are unsurprised to learn that the Quebec Assembly of Catholic Bishops is against the ban. To justify its opposition, the Assembly cites the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose Article 18 asserts one’s “freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief.” However, the proposed Charter of Quebec Values would not ban religious symbols in public in general, but only in very specific circumstances, i.e. at work in the public service. This is a reasonable rule in light of the desired goal, namely the neutrality of the state. Note that the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that secular states have the right to ban the wearing of religious symbols by their employees.

This ban on religious symbols is a very modest constraint on freedom of expression, a measure which protects and guarantees freedom of conscience for everyone. By implementing a policy of religious neutrality in the public service, the state prevents implicit, non-verbal proselytizing, which is the inevitable consequence of conspicuous religious symbols which have the potential to intimidate some clients of the public service, or to indoctrinate the most vulnerable, such as patients or children. The advantage for the general population is great, while the sacrifice required by public servants is minimal. If I worked in the public or parapublic sector, I would be more than willing to forgo my atheist t-shirt and wear something more neutral instead. In return, hijabs, crucifixes, turbans and similar religious accoutrements would also be shelved during working hours.

Opposing the ban on public servants wearing religious symbols while on duty amounts to giving priority to freedom of religion over other freedoms, a sort of veto or ranking over all other considerations. But in reality, freedom of religion derives from and depends upon freedom of conscience, and this freedom must also include the right to be free from religion. To give predominant status to a freedom to display religious symbols undermines freedom of conscience. If religious believers have rights, non-believers do too. To attain the necessary equilibrium requires religious neutrality in public institutions – institutions that belong equally to all citizens – so that everyone can participate fully, without collusion or rejection, without the interference of divergent and often conflicting religious beliefs.

Of course religious symbols and clothing come in many forms, some more ostentatious than others, some more laden with symbolism. The civil service too includes a wide variety of types of employment. When implementing the ban, a certain degree of flexibility can and must be considered. For an employee who has no coercive authority and does not serve the public directly, this issue is less important and a generous transition period would probably be appropriate. This would apply even more so for an employee hired before the ban went into effect.. In such cases, it may be appropriate to grant a temporary privilege. But it must be emphasized that we are dealing here with a privilege, not a right. For new hires, the rule must be strictly enforced. For officials with significant authority – police, judges, teachers – religious neutrality is crucial and urgent.

Thus, procedures to comply with the principle of religious neutrality in the civil service are negotiable. But the principle itself must not be compromised. The state must be independent of any religious interference and its institutions must remain neutral.

Furthermore, religious fundamentalism is a real threat to the freedom of conscience of citizens and to state autonomy. In Quebec, Christian fundamentalism is much weaker than Islamism, and it is not surprising that the anti-Charter demonstration which took place just days after the Charter’s unveiling was organized mainly by well identified Muslim fundamentalists.

If the Charter is indeed “against” anything, it is against religious privilege and fundamentalism. It is a necessary precautionary measure to prevent fundamentalists from gaining further ground in state institutions and to make sure that undue privileges are not granted to certain beliefs.

Several recent events outside Quebec cast a revealing light on this issue.

An Ontario court recently ruled that requiring new Canadian citizens to swear allegiance to the queen of England is constitutionally justified. Although this compulsory oath is a restriction on freedom of expression, this constraint is considered reasonable. Clearly there is a strong analogy here with the ban on the wearing of religious symbols by public servants on duty, because the latter also constitutes a reasonable constraint. However, the justification of the oath is much weaker: it seems to me that guaranteeing the religious neutrality of the public service is a vastly more worthwhile goal than forcing a declaration of allegiance to a foreign monarch who, in addition, is the head of a church!

Meanwhile in France, where the wearing of religious symbols has been prohibited for state officials since 1905 and for high school students since 2004, a court recently ruled in favour of a Muslim woman fired from her job at a private daycare “Baby Loup” for wearing the hijab at work. The FNLP (National Federation of Free, which has been defending secularism for over a century, also agreed with this decision, because this case is in the private sector where the ban must not apply. Note also that the FNLP opposes the 2010 French law which stipulates a general ban on the niqab in public. If ever such situations occurred in this country, the FNLP’s disciplined approach – defending strict state secularism while advocating the greatest possible freedom outside the state – would be a good example to guide our discussions. The FNLP, like LPA-AFT, is a founding member of the International Association of Free Thought (IAFT,

In Turkey, the wearing of the Islamic veil by civil servants has been banned since the adoption of a set of secularizing measures by the Mustafa Atatürk regime in the 1920s. However, that ban has just been lifted by the current pro-Islamic and anti-secular government. This is a disturbing step backward, and there is a general resurgence of fundamentalism in that country.

Quebec, on the other hand, seeks to move forward in order to complete its process of secularization.

The crucifix in the National Assembly

It is important to note that the crucifix is not even mentioned in the provisions of the Charter. However, simultaneously with the launch of the draft Charter, minister Bernard Drainville stated that the crucifix would remain in place. This has been used by many as a reason – or rather an excuse – to oppose the Charter. This opposition is illogical.

Almost all those who support the Charter also want the crucifix removed, except perhaps for a few Parti Québécois loyalists towing the party line. If the Charter is adopted, religious symbols will be banned in state institutions and the government will face enormous pressure to have the crucifix removed, and that pressure will only increase over time. Sooner or later, the government will be forced to remove it in order to comply with the Charter which the government itself proposed and adopted. But if the Charter is not adopted, there will be no reason to change anything. This accursed crucifix, symbol of the Grande Noirceur of the Duplessis era, will continue hanging on the wall above the Speaker’s seat in the National Assembly. The government will be under no pressure to remove it. On the contrary, the failure of the Charter will provide an excellent excuse for its continued presence where it is now. Secularists will have lost across the board.

If we want to get rid of that troublesome crucifix, a symbol of the intrusion of religion into politics, then the Charter must be adopted.

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