On Tuesday, September 10, 2013, Quebec’s Parti Quebecois government led by Pauline Marois released its proposal for a Charter of Quebec Values, which would decree the religious neutrality of the state and its employees and management of religious accommodation. This is not the province’s first attempt. In 2009 and 2011, Marois presented bills “to assert the fundamental values of the Québec Nation,” which we wrote about previously on Slaw here. Going further back, the Quebec government says these measures sprouted naturally from the seed planted over 50 years ago in the Quiet Revolution (Révolution tranquille).
Quebec’s citizenry is more diverse than 50 years ago, and diverse religion is a central fact of that diversity. With Quebec and Canada facing the challenge of accommodating myriad religious variations, we should have expected the issue of religious neutrality to return. Now there are many more voices to participate in the debate—and to disagree.
So what's new? Nothing really!
- Equality between men and women
- Equality for all
- The religious neutrality of the state
- Respect for Quebec’s cultural heritage
The controversy has less to do with the values than with how the government proposes to apply them. The government has presented five proposals:
- Entrench accommodation requests in the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and outline the conditions under which an accommodation could be granted. Accommodations would have to respect equality between women and men, put a stop to an act of discrimination, be reasonable, and, in the case of the government institutions, not compromise the institution’s neutrality. The Charter would explicitly indicate the separation of religion and state, the religious neutrality of the state and the secular nature of its public institutions, while taking into account Quebec's heritage (including the fundamental role the Catholic religion has played in the province’s history).
- Establish in law a duty of restraint and religious neutrality for government employees in the performance of their duties. In other words, no employee shall make her or his function an instrument of propaganda or religious beliefs.
- Regulate the wearing of ostentatious and conspicuous religious symbols by government employees during working hours (certain sectors—e.g., cégeps, universities, public health and social services institutions, and municipalities—would have the right to withdraw from the application of the Charter for up to five years, renewable in some cases. See Simon's post for details.
- Make it mandatory that people requesting services from the government or providing services on behalf of the government have their face uncovered, disclosed and visible.
- Establish a policy for all government ministries and organizations to implement religious neutrality of the state and the management of religious accommodation for all government bodies and agencies.
However, historic crucifixes in the National Assembly and other government buildings, the cross on Mount Royal and Christmas trees will not be disposed of because they are part of Quebec's heritage. It is also important to note that elected members of the national assembly will not be subject to the regulations.
Quebecers have the opportunity to make known their views on the proposal through a website and a dedicated phone line. Taking into account the comments received, the Minister responsible for Democratic Institutions and Active Citizenship, Bernard Drainville, will introduce proposed legislation incorporating the above five proposals later this fall.
Although I cannot say I am in agreement with the language of the proposal, I do think that most of the measures it would enshrine are necessary. The unfortunate thing is the debate is bringing forth irrelevant comments and assumptions.
This Charter of Values would not stop Quebec citizens from whatever culture from expressing or practicing their religious beliefs or doctrine, nor would it threaten individual rights and freedoms. The charter and associated proposals indicate a concerted effort to ensure the Quebec government and its employees remain neutral with respect to religion in the performance of their duties and obligations.
The charter would ban the wearing of kippas, turbans, burkas, hijabs and "large" crosses for civil servants while they are on the job. The prohibition regarding the wearing of religious symbols applies to workplaces in the public sector, not in the street or in the privacy of citizens’ homes. Leaving your cross or your head scarf from 9 to 5 to work for the government is not an imposition nor does it remove from who you are.
As stated by Drainville,
"If the state is neutral, those working for the state should be equally neutral in their image."
The Parti Quebecois is telling Quebecers that when performing duties on behalf of the government, public employees are neutral representatives of Quebec, and must serve the public in a neutral way. In a sense, while working, they are functionaries first and citizens second: they should hold Quebec’s values above their own.
The extension of religious freedom is a threat to equality, democracy and social cohesion. Secularism and neutrality of the state are the only guarantees believers have to not see their religion interfered with on behalf of another. Whether restricting a person’s freedom to wear religious symbols truly aids this goal of neutrality remains an open question.