AFT Blog # 40: CFI-C Abandons Secularism?

Has CFI Canada Abandoned Secularism?

David Rand, 2014-01-15

The reaction of CFI Canada to Quebec’s charter of secularism[1] has been curiously disappointing, given that organization’s claim to be a supporter and promoter of secularism. In a press release dated September 13th, 2013, CFI-C rejected the Charter, claiming that it “has the wrong aim, to take religion away from people” which is apparently their somewhat bizarre way of alleging that the Charter would threaten freedom of religion.

Then, more recently, two leaders of CFI Canada, Justin Trottier and Kevin Smith, co-authored an op-ed piece[2] in the Toronto Globe and Mail in which they go even further, accusing the Charter – which promotes religious neutrality of state institutions – of being “anti-religious bigotry” and a “threat” to Muslim veils! They then go on to assert that banning religious symbols and clothing for civil servants on duty is comparable to a recent refusal by a Vancouver billboard agency to accept atheist advertising.

If ever there were a case of metaphorically trying to force a square peg into a round hole, it is this ridiculous attempt by Trottier and Smith to draw an analogy between (a) the Quebec Charter’s proposal for religious neutrality in the public service and (b) the denial of a service in the private sector. In fact, the two issues are essentially opposites. The first involves a workplace dress-code which applies to all religious symbols without discrimination and helps ensure the political and religious neutrality of the Quebec public service; the second is discrimination against a particular category of citizens, i.e. atheists, by denying them a commercial service normally available to all. The first is egalitarian. The second is discriminatory.

There is however an analogy involving atheists which could be made, but Trottier and Smith go nowhere near it. A correct analogy would be with atheists who wear obvious symbols of their atheism (for example a t-shirt with logos or slogans) while employed in the public sector. In that case, it would be reasonable to impose a discipline of restraint for everyone, without discrimination – believer or non-believer, including atheist – requiring everyone to refrain from such obvious partisan displays while on the job.

Recall that Quebec’s proposed Charter contains several provisions: religion/state separation, a secular state which is religiously neutral, gender equality, measures to ensure that religious accommodations do not violate these principles and the religious neutrality of the public service. None of these provisions could be considered the least bit problematic for anyone wishing to live in the modern age. And yet, the last one has generated controversy : it implies a discipline of restraint for state employees, and thus a ban on wearing religious clothing and symbols while on duty. It is this ban which CFI-C invokes as its reason – or is it an excuse? – to oppose the entire Charter.

In fact, a discipline of restraint with respect to political opinions is already required by Quebec law, and the Charter would simply extend this to include religious symbols and clothing. This extension is not only reasonable, it is arguably already implicit in the concept of political opinions because ostentatious religious displays are political, especially if they involve symbols or clothing aggressively promoted by fundamentalists. Even more importantly, the ban constitutes protection for the freedom of conscience of the public – the users of state services – by allowing access to services in an environment free of displays of political and religious partisanship. But some religious believers, especially fundamentalists, demand that they be granted the privilege of an exemption from a workplace dress code which should apply equally to everyone. It is this religious privilege which CFI-C supports.

Trottier and Smith assert that, instead of the Charter, the Quebec government should be taking other measures to promote secularism, such as cutting religious tax exemptions or ending prayer at city council meetings, etc. But this is a false dichotomy. One does not exclude the other. Indeed, the Quebec Charter is a quasi-constitutional document which establishes guidelines for future policies and legislation. Thus the Charter is the best hope to get all those secular measures adopted in the foreseeable future!

The Charter states that municipalities too must be religiously neutral; if that had been law a few months ago, the Quebec Appeals Court decision in the Saguenay case (allowing prayer at municipal council meetings) would in all likelihood have been very different. You want to get rid of public funding for private religious schools? Then support the Charter and demand that the Quebec government respect it! You want to get rid of the crucifix in the National Assembly? Then support the Charter and the government will be under enormous pressure to remove it. Indeed, the pressure from Charter supporters is already considerable and the government has recently indicated its willingness to move on this issue.

But defeat the Charter and you can expect long-term stagnation on secular issues in general.

Finally, in a year-end fund-raising letter, CFI-C voices its “concerns about the Quebec government’s misinterpretation of the principles of secularism.” The idea that the authors or supporters of the Quebec Charter have anything whatsoever to learn from CFI-C on the subject of secularism is an insult to all those Quebecers who have fought so hard and so long for laïcité.

So can we answer the question posed in the title of this article? I think we can: CFI Canada has indeed abandoned secularism, in Quebec at least. Even worse, it has rejected secularism in the very place where it has the best chance of being adopted. The question is: why? Why this opposition to a quasi-constitutional measure which secularists should be welcoming with enthusiasm? Indeed, Quebec secularists are overwhelmingly in favour of the Charter while constructively criticizing its shortcomings.

A quick glance at the context of the Charter debate, especially outside Quebec, gives us a very good idea of what CFI-C is up to here. Opposition to the Charter has been very strongly coloured by a bigoted attitude towards Quebec and Quebecers. As we of LPA-AFT point out in the conclusion of our brief[3] in support of Bill 60:

“In proposing this Charter, it [the Quebec government] has raised fierce opposition from several of the most backward elements in Quebec and Canada. Topping the list are the fundamentalists who deliberately blur the distinction between religion and ethnicity in order that they may more easily throw false accusations of racism at their opponents. Then come diehard supporters of multiculturalism who are fooled by this hateful and unproductive propaganda. Finally, bringing up the rear are numerous francophobes who never miss an opportunity to express their venom and their visceral hatred whenever Quebec takes some new initiative.”

Numerous examples of these hateful attitudes could be given. I will cite only one: a Toronto Star article by Haroon Siddiqui, entitled “PQ goes all out in waging war on religious minorities”[4] which appeared just after the formal publication of the Charter. Siddiqui’s article begins with an outrageous lie – his title – and then gets worse. It is not atypical of the sort of scurrilous screed which regularly appears in the English Canadian media on the subject of the Charter.

While Siddiqui demonizes the Quebec goverment, CFI-C prefers to criticize it arrogantly. Both echo the false allegation, oft-repeated by Muslim fundamentalists, that the Charter threatens religious freedom. The exact opposite is true: the Charter helps to protect freedom of conscience. One of several ways in which it does that is through a modest and reasonable restriction on freedom of expression – not religion – in the public service.

The evidence strongly suggests that CFI-C has adopted its anti-secular position because it simply lacks the courage to stand up to the extreme hostility towards Quebec and the widespread prejudice in favour of religion. For the current CFI-C leadership, popularity is apparently far more important than principle. It is easier to pander to strong popular prejudice than it is to confront it. Given their organization’s claim to promote critical thinking, their opposition to the Quebec Charter is, in my opinion, a shameful betrayal of secularism.

So will CFI Canada do the right thing, revise its position sometime in the near future and support the Charter? Let us hope so. But if not, I suggest a name change: it should be re-baptized CFRP Canada, where CFRP = Centre for Religious Privilege because that is what they support: privilege for religious employees of the state who wish to flaunt their politico-religious views while on the job.

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