AFT Blog # 41: Hearings on Bill 60, the Quebec Charter

Freedom From Religion

David Rand and Jacques Savard, 2014-02-13

On Thursday, February 13th 2014, representatives of the association Atheist Freethinkers appeared before public hearings of the Commission des institutions of the Quebec National Assembly, on the subject of draft Bill 60 entitled “Charter affirming the values of se cularism and religious neutrality of the state and equality between women and men and governing accommodation requests.” The following is the transcript of their presentation.

If the video above does not display correctly, you may also view it on the web site of the National Assembly.
The video is almost entirely in French. It consists of AFT’s presentation (10 minutes) which is transcribed on this page, followed by a question-and-answer period of about 45 minutes.

Mister Chairman, Distinguished Minister and MNAs,

We thank you for the opportunity to present our views on this important legislation, a Bill which is not only of paramount importance for the future of Quebec, but cannot fail to have significant influence on legislation and public debate in other jurisdictions.

Allow me to introduce myself: David Rand, president of Atheist Freethinkers, an organisation which defends the rights of atheists and promotes philosophical materialism, critical thought and secularism. I am accompanied by my colleague Jacques Savard, spokesperson for our association. I also mention that my profession is in information technology, while Mr. Savard is a retired federal public service manager.

You have undoubtedly read our brief entitled “Ensuring a Secular Future for Quebec. Freedom of Conscience also includes Freedom From Religion.” We would like to summarize briefly the essential points of that document and then focus on a key principle which underlies our concerns and deserves special and explicit attention.

We, Atheist Freethinkers support the proposed Bill 60, but not without some reservations. We commend the government for having the courage to propose quasi-constitutional legislation which declares that public institutions must be religiously neutral, thus taking a major step in Quebec’s long process of secularization which began more than half a century ago.

In particular we support the principle of restraint in matters of religion which Bill 60 would impose on public servants, a duty which implies restrictions on the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols, because we know that freedom of religion must not include the privilege of practising one’s religion by broadcasting one’s personal convictions while on the job in the public service. Religious symbols, like political messages, are strongly divisive, just as the controversy around this proposed legislation has indeed demonstrated. We find it inconceivable that civil servants should be allowed to display such objects in the course of their professional duties.

This constraint poses no threat to the freedom of religion of state employees; rather it is a modest and reasonable limitation on freedom of expression during working hours. This limitation protects the freedom of conscience of all – both employees and users of public services – by establishing an environment free of partisan displays of a religious or political nature.

As atheists, we wish to emphasize that freedom of religion is incomplete if it is not coupled with freedom from religion, as both these freedoms derive from freedom of conscience. There are some 800,000 non-believers in Quebec (10% of the population). In addition, a similar number of people have no religious affiliation. The rights of non-believers and the religiously unaffiliated are as important as those of believers.

Non-verbal proselytizing through the wearing of symbols of religious affiliation in the public service is a violation of everyone’s freedoms, not just those of unbelievers. Indeed, the wearing of a religious symbol constitutes a message directed at individuals of the same religion who choose not to wear such symbols, a message which says that the latter are insufficiently pious and less worthy as believers. As atheists, we stand in solidarity with those religious believers who dare to free themselves from the pressures imposed by their family or community by questioning their former beliefs and practices.

In our opinion, the proposed Bill 60 simply extends the duty of restraint regarding political opinions in order to include expressions of religious opinion or affiliation, which are indeed simply expressions of politico-religious partisanship. Employment in the public sector is not a right but rather a privilege. Certain restrictions on freedom of expression are part of the price to pay for access to that privilege.

As for the definitions of the terms “neutrality” and “secularism,” we would prefer that draft Bill 60 be clearer. The expressions “neutrality” and “religious neutrality” are used repeatedly, whereas “secularism” is used rarely.

Unfortunately neutrality can be understood as the granting of equal rights and privileges to all religions, an interpretation which we vigorousely reject. Neutrality is the refusal of the state to intervene in whatever way in religious affairs, except to protect fundamental rights and the secularism of the state. The expression “religious neutrality of the state” is neither a synonym for nor an adequate description of “state secularism.” Rather, state secularism must be understood as the strict separation between religion and state, that is to say, the state’s complete autonomy and independence from religions and their influence.

“Religious neutrality,” clearly understood, involves:

  • the duty of religious restraint in spaces under state authority, thus assuring a civil service free of partisan religious manifestations;
  • protection of the freedom of conscience of all, especially the most vulnerable, against proselytizing; and finally
  • arbitration by the state of various freedoms which may come into conflict with each other.

For these reasons we propose that a new Article 1, officially proclaiming state secularism, be added to Bill 60 just before the existing article 1:

1. Declaration, definition and principles of secularism and neutrality

  • The Quebec state is secular in order to protect the independence of political and administrative functions of the state from the influence of religious beliefs and institutions.
  • The Quebec state is neutral with regard to the various religious beliefs and institutions, in order to respect everyone’s freedom of conscience, which it has a duty to protect.
  • Neutrality in matters of religion requires that the state abstain from granting privileges to any religious belief or organisation in any way. This obligation of neutrality also applies to organisations and agents of the state.

In the course of these hearings, several intervenors before us have enumerated various shortcomings of Bill 60. Here we summarize those which in our opinion are the most important.

  • The presence of the crucifix hanging in the main chamber of the National Assembly is a flagrant breach of secularism. It must be removed.
  • The Ethics and Religious Culture program is an unjustifiable privilege granted to religions and must be cancelled or replaced by a non-religious ethics course. In addition, the Committee on Religious Affairs and the Secretariat for Religious Affairs in the Ministry of Education, Recreation and Sport must be dissolved.
  • The secular state must adopt a mandate to protect the freedom of conscience of all, especially the most vulnerable – school children and the very young – from indoctrination. Any religious identification of children must be avoided because religion should be a matter for adults only, i.e. parents. There is no such thing as a Christian child, or a Muslim child, or a Hindu child, etc.; there are only children whose parents are Christians, Muslims, Hindus, etc.
  • All subsidies to private religious schools must be eliminated.
  • All tax advantages for the religious and for religious organizations must be repealed.
  • All religious accommodation of ritual slaughter must be ended.
  • Any and all religious ceremonies or manifestations must be prohibited in government buildings, such as prayers at municipal council or school board meetings.
  • Finally, we strongly recommend the creation of a permanent authority to oversee the continuation of secularization of Quebec society, a process which will remain incomplete.

To conclude, we would like to emphasize a key principle which is often overlooked in discussions of freedom of religion, a principle which is implicit in this debate but deserves to be made explicit: we are referring of course to freedom from religion as indicated in the title of our brief.

Indeed, freedom of religion is incomplete, or of little or no value, without the freedom to have no religion. Imagine sexual freedom which did not include the option of saying “no!” If the individual does not have the freedom to reject a religious belief or practice, then his or her “freedom” to adopt one is worthless. This issue is of particular concern to us as atheists, as non-believers. However, the freedom to be liberated from religion is just as important, and arguably even more so, for believers.

At no point does legislation define freedom of conscience. Neither does it state explicitly that this freedom may take the form, among others, of freedom of apostasy, the freedom to change one’s religion and the freedom to be an atheist. Explicit mention in law of apostasy is particularly important because several religions punish it severely, even going so far as the death penalty.

Accordingly, we strongly recommend the explicit inclusion of freedom of unbelief and freedom of apostasy in legislation so that they will not be abandoned to the vagaries of jurisprudence which seems increasing to ignore them. We also ask that these freedoms be formally and explicitly enshrined in Article 10 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in order to protect unbelievers and apostates against the discrimination of which they are too often the targets.

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