The Quebec government is portraying its new “laicity” legislation as merely an attempt to bring about a secular society. What the law symbolizes however is deep-rooted fear and loathing of religion and all that it means to society.
Not that most of the politicians behind Bill 21 would admit their animosity toward religion, or are even aware of it. I’m willing to grant that many truly believe imposed atheism will help bring about a more perfect society free of the baggage and impositions they perceive religion is responsible for.
But in fact the law against religious expression is quite simply a political vendetta against religion and the dangerous truth that it represents – that in the 21st century there remains a power higher than Caesar.
Why else would a government see a need to ban public employees from wearing religious symbols on the job? Out of concern for members of the public who may be offended while being served? That can hardly be it, since the particularly troubling aspect of this law is that it’s only religious expressions that are banned.
Consider this: a public servant can wear a scarf, but not a veil. A teacher can wear a Sagittarius astrology medal but not a crucifix. A gay rights pin, a save the whales patch, a communist button, or a North Korea flag would be allowed, but not a cross. And if your faith involves wearing a turban or yarmulke, then a career in the Quebec civil service is not in the cards for you.
When Quebec government officials are asked what the rationale for the legislation is, they deflect by saying Quebec must be a secular society. There are two problems with that response:
Why must it be secular?
Why is the government interpreting secularism to mean atheism?
In fact the legislation doesn’t use the word secularism, but rather “laicity,” implying separation of Church and state (a U.S. concept, not Canadian) and equality of citizens.
It’s easy to see the law goes beyond state neutrality toward religion and into the suppression of religious expression. So outrageous is this legislation, so contrary to fundamental rights, that the only way Quebec can fathom accomplishing it is by invoking the notwithstanding clause.
One Quebec official revealed more than he perhaps intended to in an interview: “We’re saying that when you come to work…you leave your religion at the door.”
So that’s it. Religion has to be left at the door, like dirty boots.
It’s a troubling development in this country, and efforts to remove crucifixes in the Quebec legislature and Montreal city hall are further expressions of the growing state animosity toward religion, and in particular Catholicism.
To be sure, what’s happening in Quebec is only an extreme form of what’s going on in other parts of Canada where there are growing efforts to push religion out of education, out of health care, and out of polite society. The anti-faith arguments ignore Canada’s long history of religious accommodation, and usually come veiled in reasonable-sounding assertions that religious institutions shouldn’t be receiving government benefits. Or that people are free to believe what they want … in private.
But scratch the surface and the underlying sentiment is clear: Religious displays make us uncomfortable. We don’t want to see them or hear them. So under the pretext of limiting hate speech or symbols of oppression, anything that might prick our conscience must be prohibited: a pro-life sign, a hospital that won’t allow euthanasia, a school that requires certain moral behaviour, or a teacher wearing a cross.
What’s next? Will there be a religious litmus test to apply for a government job? Ottawa already imposes a faith test to receive summer job funding; why not on welfare payments and child tax benefits? How long will it be before a turban or a crucifix is an obstacle to having your driver’s licence photo taken?
All Canadians need to ask themselves: if expressions of religious faith are limited today, what will be unacceptable tomorrow? Consider that religion and free speech occupy the highest tier in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. If religious rights can be restricted or removed, how long will it be until the law starts whittling away at other rights that hit closer to home?