I was wondering whether I should say something about the recently leaked proposal for the “Charter of Quebec Values,” but Mathew has noted some of the major problems . I think one thing worth adding is that the proposal, not even out of the starting gate yet, already shows signs of the universal problem with this kind of proposal.

The proposal is “to prohibit the wearing of overt and conspicuous religious symbols by state personnel in carrying out their duties” in order to reflect the principle that the state is religiously neutral. How can this work in practice? Take the Sikh turban, the dastar , which is quite clearly one of the items of clothing singled out in the handy little pictures.

Why do Sikh men wear turbans? Sikh men can in principle wear other things (although the alternatives are usually associated with little boys and the turban is the only universally practical option for grown men), and since Sikhs tend to have a very reasonable approach to such matters, they would not usually have a problem going without it if it were genuinely required by context. But the turban is closely connected to what is undeniably a mandatory element of Sikh religious practice, and which is the real religious symbol here: uncut hair. In Sikhism, the hair, wearing kesh , is an overt and conspicuous religious symbol, and the point of the turban is chiefly to protect this essential religious symbol and display it in a manageable and reasonable way.

How much the turban is a religious symbol, rather than simply an ethnic garment that has become the standard way to protect a religious symbol, is a matter that could be argued over; there is no argument whatsoever that the uncut hair and beard are overt and conspicuous religious symbols. Sikhs have become martyrs rather than cut their hair. Uncut hair was required by Guru Gobind Singh for precisely that purpose; in a sense, he set out to make the Sikh community itself, and every member of it, an overt and conspicuous religious symbol . Take off a Sikh turban and you have not removed the overt and conspicuous religious symbol; you have made it more overt and conspicuous.

To prohibit the wearing of overt and conspicuous religious symbols among civil servants directly implies that citizens who must wear overt and conspicuous religious symbols for religious reasons are banned from the civil service. That is not state neutrality, which is claimed to be the point, but active exclusion for religious reasons.

Articles by Brandon Watson

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