Almost immediately after the October 1st election of the new majority government of the CAQ (Coalition Avenir Québec), its leader François Legault as well as several other party spokespersons announced their intention to implement their programme for secularism in very short order. Their determination to resolve, or at least begin to resolve, this difficult issue was received by the population, including many who had not voted for the party, like an unexpected breath of fresh air. A wave of hope spread across Quebec, especially the hope that the CAQ will keep its promises and not back down in the face of ferocious and dishonest anti-secular opposition which took no time in manifesting itself, spilling its hatred on the CAQ, just as it had on the Parti Québécois (PQ) and its Charter of Secularism in 2013-2014.
What is Proposed
So, just what is the CAQ’s secular programme? What exactly do they propose to do? Here is a summary, based on a letter from the CAQ, addressed to the Mouvement laïque québécois (MLQ, Quebec Secular Movement) in reply to questions from that organisation. (We thank Lucie Jobin, MLQ president, for sharing that letter with us.)
Thus, in their letter of September 11th 2018, during the election campaign, the CAQ committed itself to the following:
- repeal Bill 62 adopted by the previous Liberal government;
- ensure that state services are both given and received without face-covering, no religious exceptions allowed;
- inscribe explicitly in law that the Quebec state is secular;
- not to rule out the possibility of using the notwithstanding clause if necessary to endure that the law is respected and applied without delay;
- ban the wearing of all religious symbols by state employees in positions of coercive authority, including judges, prosecutors, police and prison guards;
- ban the wearing of all religious symbols by teachers—for they are figures of authority—in public schools at both primary and secondary levels.
- reform the ERC (Ethics and Religious Culture) programme in response to criticisms of the “religious culture” part which adopts a totally uncritical stance towards religions and which almost completely ignores atheists and other non-believers.
The CAQ’s letter clearly specifies that “no member of state personnel will be allowed to wear a niqab, chador or burqa while exercising their duties. No exception will be granted under any circumstances.”
All of these proposals are excellent, with the possible exception of the last one which is rather vague. During the election campaign, the PQ promised to cancel completely the “religious culture” part of ERC, which would be the best solution because that part consists only of indoctrination into cultural relativism and is not reformable.
Point no. (2) corrects the weaknesses of the Liberal Party’s Bill 62, repealed in (1).
The plan to use the notwithstanding clause if necessary (4) is particularly good news, because it indicates the determination and resolve of the new government.
Point no. (5) corresponds to recommendations of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission while (6) goes beyond them by including teachers in the ban. This also is good news because it is important that children not be exposed to the religious influence resulting from a religion symbol worn by the teacher who is a role model for them. It is unfortunate that the personnel of child-care centres is not included. Furthermore, it would be best if the religious symbol ban were extended to all state employees. Nevertheless, what the CAQ proposes is a good start.
The CAQ programme does not mention the National Assembly (NA) and Legault has declared that the crucifix which hangs above the speaker’s chair in the Salon bleu of that legislature will remain. His claim that the crucifix is a “heritage” object is obvious nonsense. The crucifix must go, of course, but that is not enough. Also required are amendments to the law governing the National Assembly which would ban all religious symbols, of all religions, whether part of the physical installations of the legislature or worn by the elected members of the NA.
The CAQ’s proposals do not unfortunately go as far as the Charter of Secularism proposed by the PQ five years ago. It bears repeating: the ban on religious symbols should apply to the entire public service.
Furthermore, in both cases—the PQ in 2013 and the CAQ today—the proposed legislation fails to address the important question of the fiscal advantages which religious institutions enjoy. In particular, all public funding of private schools, many of which have a religious vocation, must be ended.
And The Hypocritical
Of course the anti-secularists immediately jumped on the issue of the crucifix in the NA in order to accuse the government—or even all Quebeckers—of hypocrisy. If they want to see hypocrisy, all they need is to look in a mirror, for their position is as contradictory as that of the CAQ, if not more. The CAQ would ban religious symbols worn by public servants but leave such a symbol hanging in a crucial location. Their critics demand that the crucifix disappear, but would let state employees wear anything anywhere. Both are wrong. The only consistent solution is to ban religious symbols both on the physical installations of state institutions and worn by the personnel of those institutions. In fact, symbols worn by employees are arguably worse, because such symbols have a more vivid significance when worn by an active agent of the state than when simply displayed on an inanimate installation.
If the new government promises to remove the crucifix—which of course it should do—then we can be sure that anti-secularists will simply find yet another excuse to vilify it. Any imperfection will do. Meanwhile, the anti-secularists’ only proposal is to keep the status quo.
We atheists and secularists must support the CAQ to the extent that they stand firm and do not cave in to the opposition, while we simultaneously nudge them to go a little farther, in particular with respect to the National Assembly and child-care centres. If, however, they begin to waver or delay—by excluding teachers for example, or by granting exceptions—then we would have to consider withdrawing our support.