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The Province of Quebec is proposing to ban the wearing of any and all religious headgear (including hijabs, turbans and yarmulkes, as well as other religious symbols) from public facilities and public service – affecting teachers, hospital workers, daycare workers, nurses, civil servants and (we assume) politicians.
The law would also cover “ostentatious” crucifixes, which has led to darkly humorous speculation about police stopping people to measure the size of their crucifix.
What about a tattoo of a giant “Om” on someone’s back? Would the owner have to remove it? Cover it up?
What about priests’ collars or nuns’ habits, worn in every Catholic school in the province. They’re public sector, aren’t they?
And what about displays of the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Evolvefish? Or the red atheist “A”? Atheist symbols aren’t religious, so would they be exempt under this new law? *
It would be a bad law, as bad if not worse than the province’s repressive language laws. And it will spark innumerable challenges based on the Charter of Rights’ declaration of religious freedom.**
Not long ago, Quebec’s soccer federation tried to ban the wearing of Sikh turbans on the field. Why? Do turbans proffer a hithertofore unknown benefit to the wearers; performance-enhancing headgear like drugs? Or the opposite? The federation mumbled incoherently about safety, although there has been no turban-related injury ever recorded.
Could it be that turbans have no effect whatsoever on the player or his game and it was just racially-motivated? The general consensus was the latter, and the federation had to backtrack and rescind the ban after it became an international issue. The backlash was embarrassing and awkward, but the PQ government stood by the soccer federation.
While the PQ government – Canada’s answer to the Tea Party, it seems – remains tight-lipped about the upcoming ban on religious displays, the speculation is that Quebec wants to enforce a secular state by legislation. It has announced plans to release a Quebec secular “values” document this fall.
Clearly they haven’t learned from history: Lenin and his successors tried to do that and failed. The more the state interferes with religion, the more it thrives. I suspect that this attempt by the PQ will galvanize the province’s fading Catholicism. Nothing like a good punch-up to bring out the believers. Britain has its soccer hooligans; Quebec may have its Catholic hooligans if this passes.***
Values cannot be legislated. Instilled, taught, expressed and promoted, but – like taste and talent – not legislated. Lead by example, Marois, not by the iron fist.
Separation of church and state is an admirable political philosophy, but has never really worked anywhere on the planet. For all that we think we are a modern, secular society here in Canada, religion still plays a big role in our public sphere. People swear oaths of office on the Bible, they swear to tell the truth in court “so help me God.” Our Remembrance Day service is replete with references to Christianity, regardless of the faith (or lack of it) of the fallen. We sing “God Save the Queen” and in O Canada we sing, “God keep our land glorious and free!”
Now I’m a firm believer that religion is a personal matter, and the state should be neutral when it comes to religion (every state, every religion.). I’m solidly secularist as far as government s concerned. I do not want any egregious, open display of religion of any sort from any public servant that might be construed as either affecting the outcome of an answer, a decision or policy. But I am not offended by anyone’s personal beliefs.
Wearing a turban, a kippah or a crucifix doesn’t strike me as ostentatious or even vaguely proselytizing. It’s like what you drive: your choice. As long as it it doesn’t affect the state of the highways, why should I care?
Religion is also a cultural matter and some dress, some gestures, some customs have bled by osmosis into general use. Saying “bless you” or gesundheit when someone sneezes is one example. Some of our statutory holidays are religious. Even if you’re not a Christian, or even religious, you get Christmas and Easter off work.
A recent story in the Globe and Mail called the proposed ban “Putinesque,” a reference to the brutal, autocratic, homophobic and intolerant Russian leader whose recent anti-gay laws have become models for repressive legislation. Interesting that Putin’s name now is more despised than Stalin’s, at least in the rest of the world. Will Premier Pauline Marois enjoy sharing that reputation?
When health and safety are an issue with headgear, they can be dealt with more effectively by passing or amending laws either specific to an industry (construction, for example, where a hardhat is mandated by occupational health & safety legislation), health (requiring the cleanliness of headgear to be confirmed by supervisors), or identifying times when headgear either interferes or has the potential to cause liability issues (like riding a motorcycle or casting a ballot in a public election).
A blanket ban is not only aggressively offensive, but also monumentally stupid. Why risk polarizing the electorate and alienating minority groups?
The quality of healthcare will not change if a nurse wears a headscarf. It certainly didn’t get worse when nuns wore wimples. The quality of food will not change – actually it may get better – if servers and cooks wear head covering. Many restaurants already require head gear to prevent stray hair from contaminating food. A doctor wearing a crucifix will not make me heal better or worse than one without it.
Worse is that this proposal comes with the stench of racism, since most of the wearers of such headgear are not the white, Catholic (but allegedly secular) rulers of the province. better would have been some sort of voluntary guidelines, maybe an incentive program.
The PQ blusters about the harm of “religious accommodation” but it’s examples are so bland and inconsequential as to be mere canards. Allowing Orthodox Jews to ignore parking restrictions on Saturday so they don’t have to violate their religious laws by moving their car, for example, is a trivial issue but the PQ Labour Minister had to wade in and decry the exception. As if it mattered. As if the sky was falling.
A Globe and Mail editorial noted,
The reasonable accommodation debate has been front-page news in Quebec since the terror attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent backlash in many countries against Muslims. A series of overblown controversies – a small town adopted a “code of conduct” that churlishly reminded immigrants that stoning women to death, female circumcision and other unlikely-to-occur practices aren’t allowed in Quebec; a sugar shack removed pork from its menu to accommodate Muslim patrons – prompted the Liberal government of Jean Charest to establish the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences, in 2007.
The $5.1-million commission held 31 days of hearings and released a report in 2008 that correctly concluded that Quebec was not in a crisis. It nonetheless made recommendations, one of which called on the province to declare itself secular. The idea caught the attention of the Parti Québécois, which has vowed to adopt what it has come to call the Charter of Quebec Values.
Quebec, though, is in a crisis: a manufactured one. A group has decided to create an issue, create a controversy, where none existed. To invent a crisis by cleverly manipulating the media and the public. Make it look like there’s substance where there’s only smoke and mirrors. Shades of local politics, eh?
This matters because we’re all in Canada and how any province treats its immigrants, its minorities, its faiths reflects on us all. Canadians are (or should be) known worldwide for their tolerance, acceptance, and compassion. This proposed charter of values will make us look like bigots. Let’s hope the PQ proposal gets shot down before that happens.
* What is the real difference between wearing a religious icon or clothing and wearing a political party pin? A union pin? A branded ball cap? A Star Trek badge? An automobile crest on your rapper bling? An Elvis or Beatles T-shirt? A Masonic ring? Does the wearing of a symbol do anything more than reflect a personal choice?
** Section two of the Charter, fundamental freedoms, guarantees:
2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:
(a) freedom of conscience and religion;
(b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
(c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and
(d) freedom of association.
*** The French tried to secularize almost every aspect of life after the Revolution (the Napoleonic Code in particular), and much of it was a disaster. Take a look at the mess they made of the calendar. In 1905, during the Third Republic, France passed a new law to define the separation of church and state. Valiant efforts, but Marois is no Napoleon (I or III). The PQ proposal is a thin ectoplasm of the French legislation.
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