Quebec Plans to Adopt Secularism as Official Policy
Spokesperson, International Association of Free Thought
President, Libres penseurs athées –- Atheist Freethinkers (Canada)
The following talk was given at the 3rd Congress of the International Association of Freethought (IAFT) held in Concepción, Chile, November 8-10, 2013.
We have major news from Canada. The province of Quebec is preparing to adopt secularism as its official policy.
In September 2013, the government of Quebec announced that it would adopt, in the near future, a “Charter of Quebec Values.” The proposed Charter would formally declare separation of religion and state, the religious neutrality of the state and the secular nature of its institutions. It would impose an ethics of restraint and religious neutrality for public servants. It would prohibit obvious religious symbols in the public service. It would re-assert gender equality. And it would establish clear guidelines to limit so-called “reasonable” accommodations which have in the past resulted in special privileges for some religious groups. All of these measures go in the direction of formalizing the secular nature of the state and assuring the independence and autonomy of the state from religion.
Thus, the Charter promotes secularism and religious neutrality and embodies republican and feminist principles, while impeding 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.
The government has recently indicated that it may strengthen the Charter’s provisions by removing the renewability of some exemptions, so that they will be temporary only, and by removing the crucifix which still hangs on the wall of the legislative assembly. The current Parti Québécois (PQ) government is a minority government, so adoption of the Charter is not guaranteed. It will need support from other parties in the legislature in order to pass.
The proposed Charter has been very controversial, with both strong opposition and strong support from within Quebec. The opposition has often been dishonest, making unsubstantiated accusations of intolerance, xenophobia and even racism.
The ideology of multiculturalism, which values ethnic and religious affiliation above universal human principles, is a major factor in opposition to the Charter. In fact, the proposed Charter would protect freedom of conscience – thus protecting both freedom OF religion and freedom FROM religion – by guaranteeing a public service which is religiously neutral and a state independent of religious influence. If the Charter is indeed “against” anything, it is against religious privilege and fundamentalism.
But religious fundamentalists – in particular Islamic fundamentalists – play the victim, claiming that the Charter would threaten their freedom of religion. They use the language of “human rights” to fight against human rights, by demanding the “right” for a Muslim woman to wear a veil even when working as a civil servant. They also deliberately blur the line between religion and ethnicity, so that they may accuse the proposed Charter – and those who support it – of “islamophobia” and “racism,” as if resisting religious fundamentalism were equivalent to racial discrimination.
Unfortunately, many people have fallen into the ideological trap set by the Islamists and have been seduced by their fallacious and dishonest arguments into opposing the proposed Charter. The most virulent opponents repeat gratuitous accusations of racism and xenophobia. Many complain bitterly about the proposed dress code, as if it were a serious violation of freedom of religion, but often “forget” to mention that it applies only to civil servants, and only during working hours. And, in keeping with the mentality of multiculturalism, they elevate freedom of religion to absolute status, as if it were more important than any other right or principle with which it conflicts.
Opposition to the proposed Charter has been especially virulent in Canada outside Quebec, where multiculturalism is more popular – almost sacred – and understanding of secularism is much weaker than in Quebec. It is also important to recall that the Parti Québécois, which currently holds power in Quebec (although a minority government) is sovereignist, that is, it promotes Quebec independence. This greatly increases opposition from Canadians outside Quebec because many are apparently incapable of judging the issue fairly because they are blinded by their antipathy to the government which is proposing it. (Yet the two issues are unrelated ; some well-known sovereignists oppose the proposed Charter, while many anti-sovereignists support it.) Even some so-called secular organizations in Canada outside Quebec have issued statements which shamefully oppose the Charter.
The most controversial aspect is undoubtedly the prohibition on the wearing of obvious religious symbols by civil servants on duty. Those who oppose this prohibition support, whether consciously or not, discrimination in favour of state employees who are religious believers and against non-believers, that is, they support 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. To give predominant status to a freedom to wear religious symbols in violation of a general rule undermines freedom of conscience.
Opponents of the proposed Charter often attempt to legitimize their opposition by invoking the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in particular Article 18 which states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
They emphasize that the Quebec Charter would violate the freedom to manifest one’s religion “in public” as stipulated in the above Article 18. However, they fail to mention that Article 29 (2) of the same UN Declaration states:
“In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.”
The proposed ban on religious symbols worn by state employees while on duty is a very modest constraint on freedom of expression and clearly fulfils the criteria for a justifiable limitation as described in the above Article. It should also be emphasized that many of the other rights mentioned in other articles of the UN Declaration – such as gender equality, freedom from cruel punishment, freedom of movement, freedom from forced marriage, right to education, etc. – are systematically denied by the very fundamentalists who complain the loudest that the Charter threatens their rights. Even their favourite Article 18 affirms the freedom to change one’s religion, but this freedom is explicitly denied by Islamic fundamentalists.
For officials with significant authority – police, judges, teachers – the prohibition of religious symbols is crucial and urgent. Further, by implementing a policy of religious neutrality throughout 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.
An Alliance for Secularism (Rassemblement pour la laïcité) has been organized and is gathering massive support from many sectors of Quebec society. This alliance includes a wide variety of participants: secular groups of course, unions, immigrant groups, feminists, lesbians and gays, atheists, humanists, etc. Tens of thousands have signed the Alliance‘s statement of principles to promote secularism and support the adoption of a charter. On October 26th, in spite of cold and rain, some twenty thousand persons participated in a march for secularism in Montreal.
Meanwhile in Turkey, the clock is being turned back 90 years as the Islamic veil is now allowed in the Turkish civil service and parliament. The secular measures adopted under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk are being eroded by the current Islamist government.
Quebec, on the other hand, seeks to move forward. The proposed Charter is the next natural step in its secularisation, a process which began about 50 years ago and which coincides with Quebec’s so-called “quiet revolution.” If the Charter is not adopted, that failure will be a tragic setback, an historic opportunity squandered. However if it is adopted, Quebec will become a beacon of secularism, doing more than most jurisdictions in the world to protect both freedom of religion and freedom from religion. Furthermore, the secular principles which are explicit in the Charter will greatly facilitate the elimination of remaining privileges and fiscal advantages still enjoyed by religious institutions, thus expediting the completion of the secularization of Quebec.
- Universal Declaration of Human Rights (in English)
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (in Spanish)
- Rassemblement pour la laïcité
- International Association of Freethought