Quebec is the New Neutral Zone

Normally, I do not write about political issues. My reason is simple. On the whole, I don’t feel sufficiently educated or informed enough to do so; and therefore I avoid those topics in order to avoid looking foolish, ignorant or both. I have friends who are very well-versed in a variety of political topics and are very articulate about them. Compared to their insights, anything I could possibly offer risks sounding simplistic at the very least.

But as a person of faith, there is currently an issue in the news that is both interesting and personally significant enough to provoke my writing about it. And the issue I am speaking of is the proposed legislation in the province of Quebec—the Charter of Quebec Values—that would prohibit public workers from wearing religious symbols. As the CBC reported, “The minister in charge of the charter, Bernard Drainville, announced at the national assembly that if the charter were adopted by the legislature, the wearing of kippas, turbans, burkas, hijabs and ‘large’ crosses would be banned for civil servants while they are on the job.” Specifically, “The plan would apply to judges, police, prosecutors, public daycare workers, teachers, school employees, hospital workers and municipal personnel.” The logic is that those who are public workers ought to have the appearance of neutrality with respect to those whom they serve.

I found intriguing that the prohibition would mean that adherents of the Christian faith would be prohibited from wearing “large crosses.” Aside from the fact that any definition of “large” is going to be subjective, one of the first thoughts that crosses my mind is that as Christian I am not obligated to wear a cross. Not only that, not everyone who wears a cross is a Christian. For good or ill, as a symbol the cross has entered our cultural vocabulary fully enough to be worn and used and appropriated by plenty of people who are not confessedly followers of Jesus. As it happens, I almost always am wearing a (small?) wooden cross precisely in order to express my faith. But I don’t have to do so. I choose to do so. There are other Christians, actually, who might refrain from doing so because as a symbol the cross has lost meaning in our culture. In any event, unlike some other religious traditions, it is not incumbent upon Christians to wear a cross, crucifix, or any other outward symbol of their faith.

That my wearing a cross is voluntary, by the way, is significant.

You see, what strikes me as philosophically questionable is the idea that the need for neutrality in public workers is the impetus behind this proposed charter of values. But this begs the question: What is neutrality? I think a more appropriate description is an appearance of neutrality. Sure, if I happened to be a public worker and a Christian, I might not wear a cross, but that doesn’t make me fundamentally neutral about anything. It just means I’m not wearing a cross as an expression of my religious beliefs. I’m still a Christian. I still hold the same convictions. I appear to be neutral; but appearances, as it happens in this case, are deceiving. And that’s another thing; someone of no religious convictions and who is also a public worker can treat those whom they are to serve with just as much prejudice as someone with a faith perspective. Though they would never wear religiously symbolic clothing, they only appear neutral.

And let’s face it, neither is such legislation neutral. Requiring all public workers to adhere to such a charter is symptomatic of a political bias which holds that secularism means limiting all religious expression to the purely private realm. It assumes religious beliefs are entirely private, subjective, and irrelevant to public life. I can tell you that no one who does have deeply held religious convictions would ever think this. The truth is that we all live by a worldview of one kind or another. Secularism is also a worldview, a particular way of understanding the world that includes convictions about what is and is not suitable for public life. Whatever any political party or any organization or any person thinks, there is no neutrality.

Listening to a radio discussion of this topic recently, one of the callers said essentially that religious beliefs ought to be kept private. Interesting. Would he or she say the same thing about political views? Opinions about economics? Would this person also agree that, yes, homosexuals can do what they want at home but leave it there? Somehow I doubt it. Yet religion, apparently, must do precisely this. Such inconsistent reasoning demonstrates a disappointing grasp of both the nature of religious belief and the place it plays in the lives of those who have it. To take merely one example from my own Christian faith, one of Jesus’ express commands to those who follow him is to make more disciples of Jesus. Hard to do this if I keep what I believe completely to myself. Obviously, Jesus doesn’t call his followers to be rude or insensitive or unnecessarily offensive to people; but it does mean being open with what we believe, and even inviting others to consider making our beliefs their own.

Of course, I realize that this proposed charter would only apply to public workers when they are on the job. It’s not a province-wide ban applicable to everyone at all times. Even then, would I really be bothered by being served by someone at Service NB wearing a turban or a “large” cross? What if they wore a prominent necklace that read “There is no God” or “We come from aliens”? Personally, I could care less. Do they serve me well, efficiently, with courtesy? These are the important questions. If the public worker was a teacher instructing my children, I would hope that a teacher with a Sikh background would be just as capable teaching my kids as any other. Sure, I take the risk of my kids being exposed to ideas that I disagree with; however, this is the price of living in a free society.  Buddhists, Jews, Muslims would all take the same chance if I were their kid’s teacher. Either way, if a public school teacher were to tell the kids in their classroom about their religious beliefs, taking away their burkas and “Jesus is the only way” t-shirts wouldn’t make much of a difference.

Nothing of what I’ve said even begins to touch on the issues of religious freedom and personal liberty and whether or not such a proposed charter infringes on either of them. What gives any government the right to legislate what I choose to wear, whether it’s religiously-symbolic garb or not? And, actually, it goes past our specifically religious freedom to our freedom as individuals in a democratic society generally. It begs the question: to what degree should the government be able to regulate our personal choices? Given that this proposed charter can in no way guarantee anything more than the superficial appearance of neutrality, what purpose is it actually serving other than playing into people’s lack of comfort around people of distinctly different religious views and, let’s face it, ethnic backgrounds? There is something insidiously racist about this proposed charter.

As Canadian citizens, we’ve been told over and over again that we are a multi-cultural society, one that consists of people from many ethnic and religious backgrounds. Being a multi-cultural country should, at the very least, mean variety of expression. And the freedom to have it. It should mean we are visibly diverse. And shouldn’t we also be visibly diverse in those places where people are representing the government that is supposed to be protecting these freedoms? Say what you might about the designation “multi-cultural,” surely this proposed charter is more about homogeneity than neutrality, more about advocating a particular point of view than protecting people from potentially offensive religious expression.

At the moment, of course, this proposed Charter of Quebec Values is merely proposed. It isn’t law yet. Whether it will be, we’ll have to wait and see. Lots of debate is happening around it, and this sort of discussion is important. I certainly hope the PQ will reconsider the charter, especially given the conversation it has provoked. Seems to me that such proposals are often made without really considering all of the related issues not to mention the consequences for our future in terms of precedent. And as for those to whom this charter would specifically apply, I would hope that they would continue to be true to their religious convictions, whatever the consequences might be for their role as public workers. That would be my approach. As the early Christians told the rulers of their own day, “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29).

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