Just under two weeks ago, I noted on First Thoughts the news that the province of Quebec was planning to outlaw public employees from wearing overt religious garb. While aspects of the proposed “Charter of Quebec Values” had been leaked, at the time the government hadn’t officially released the details.
Now it has. On Tuesday, the ruling Parti Québécois unveiled the new charter. “We propose to prohibit the wearing of overt and conspicuous religious symbols by state personnel in carrying out their duties,” the government writes in an English description of the proposal which restricts religious clothing. The ban will apply to all government ministries and organizations; members of the judiciary and police officers; all school board personnel (including teachers); daycare personnel; university personnel (including professors); public health personnel (including doctors and nurses); and municipal personnel.
Exceptions to the ban would include elected representatives. The charter would also allow individual universities, health institutions, and municipalities the right to “adopt a resolution allowing its personnel to wear such religious symbols.” But if you’re a Muslim woman who wears a headscarf and works in a government-subsidized daycare, you’re out of luck (and, as a result, out of a job). Likewise if you’re a turban-wearing Sikh who wants to be a school teacher or police officer.
Minor exceptions are to be made for small “non-ostentatious” religious symbols, such as the crescent-earring, cross-necklace, and Star of David ring in the image above. Anything beyond that (see examples in the image below) would be banned. Both images, by the way, are illustrations released by the Government of Quebec.
The announcement drew quick criticism from Canada’s ruling Conservative Party and the Official Opposition New Democrat Party (a welcome change from their earlier near-silence on the issue). NDP leader Tom Mulcair spoke out strongly against it, calling the charter “intolerable” and “state-mandated discrimination.” Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney of the Conservatives suggested the legislation would be challenged by the federal government if it is found that the charter “violates the constitutional protections to freedom of religion to which all Canadians are entitled.” [The “if” in that statement is ridiculous. Even a cursory look at the charter reveals its unconstitutionality.] To his credit, the leader of the federal Liberal party has been a vocal opponent of the plan since it first began making the news.
It’s not just politicians denouncing the plan either. An organization of Quebec teachers has condemned it, for example, and a number of professors at McGill University have apparently started wearing crosses and kippahs in defiance of the proposed charter.
Despite such criticism, the Parti Québécois isn’t backing down (and with recent polls suggesting 66 percent of Quebeckers now approve of the charter, it’s not hard to see why). The Quebec Minister in charge of the charter denies that the law would unfairly target the religious. “The choice that we are making is not against anyone,” he said in an interview with the Globe and Mail. “It’s a choice for all Quebec society, for everyone, all Quebeckers. It’s the choice of religious neutrality.” He continued, arguing that “working for the state is not a right,” but rather “a choice that comes with certain responsibilities.”
“Responsibilities,” he says. But can it be doubted he means anything other than the surrender of religious freedom? Or are we to believe that religious freedom is somehow “protected” even while the religious are forbidden from exercising that freedom in the public square? Such freedom is free only in name. George Orwell may have written his famous essay on political language with English in mind, but it’s clear our French brethren have no problem using the same wicked “euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness” in their political talk. And I do mean wicked: Couching the denial of basic rights under the language of “values” and “responsibility” could hardly be anything else.