Secularism Betrayed, Part I

How Conformism Trumped Principle and Set Secularism Back Decades in Canada
Part I: The Charter

Minor format changes 2021-07-14

Sommaire en français La Charte de la laïcité (projet de loi 60) a été proposée par le gouvernement du Parti Québécois en automne 2013. Cette charte, quoique loin d’être parfaite, aurait fait un pas très important sur le long chemin vers la laïcisation de la société québécoise, un processus déjà entamé par la Révolution Tranquille. Elle jouissait d’une grande popularité et un Rassemblement pour la laïcité s’est organisé pour appuyer le projet. Mais l’opposition était féroce, venant surtout des partisans du soi-disant multiculturalisme qui accorde une priorité à l’appartenance ethno-religieuse — aux dépens des principes universels —, et des islamistes. L’aspect le plus controversé de la Charte était la prohibition du port de signes religieux par les fonctionnaires publics durant leurs heures de travail ; pourtant, une contrainte semblable existe déjà dans la législation québécoise car les fonctionnaires ont un devoir de réserve en ce qui concerne leurs opinions politiques personnelles. Mais les opposants de la Charte ne tenaient pas compte de cela et dénonçaient le projet de loi comme une menace pour la liberté de religion, allant parfois jusqu’à accuser les pro-Charte de racisme et de xénophobie.

This three-part blog was written in January 2015 and intended for an international readership. Its tone is pessimistic. Since then, the Supreme Court of Canada decision of April 15th 2015, banning prayers at municipal council meetings, has major implications for the future of secularism in Canada and has renewed optimism among secularists.

In late 2013, the government of the Canadian province of Quebec introduced major draft legislation — a Charter of Secularism — which would have formally and officially declared Quebec to be secular. Unfortunately the proposed legislation died when that government was defeated in a provincial election in April of 2014.

One could be forgiven for assuming that all those who claim to favour secularism would have supported the bill wholeheartedly and worked hard to ensure its adoption, and this is indeed what occurred inside the province. But such was not the case outside Quebec. Indeed, two ostensibly secular organizations even went so far as to oppose the Charter publicly. This is the story of that shameful betrayal.

The Charter

The Charter or Bill 60 carried the unwieldy title “Charter affirming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests” and contained provisions which:

  • formally declared separation between religion and state, the religious neutrality of the state and the secular nature of its institutions;
  • imposed on public servants a duty of discretion and neutrality with regard to religion, prohibiting religious symbols in the public service;
  • reaffirmed gender equality; and
  • established clear guidelines to regulate so-called “reasonable” accommodations which in the past had resulted in granting certain privileges to various religious groups and should instead be called religious accommodations.

All of these measures would have formalized the secular nature of the state and ensured its autonomy and independence from religion.

The Charter, if adopted, would have been a natural next step in Quebec’s remarkable progression over the last half-century from a priest-ridden backwater of Roman Catholic obscurantism to a modern, open and secular society, a process which is known as the Quiet Revolution. Virtually every secularist, humanist, atheist and/or freethought group in Quebec supported it enthusiastically (but not uncritically) and rallied to form a coalition, the Rassemblement pour la laïcité (RPL or Alliance for Secularism) which held various events including a march in October 2013 when some 26000 individuals braved the cold and rain in Montreal to declare their earnest desire for state secularism. Several member-organizations of the Rassemblement, for example Atheist Freethinkers (AFT), submitted briefs to public hearings on the proposed legislation in early 2014. The Charter should have inspired other provinces to consider similar legislation.

The Charter was not perfect. It failed to mention several important issues such as the following.

  • It did not end the current 60% public funding of private schools, many of which are religious.
  • It did not end tax advantages for the religious and for religious organizations.
  • It addressed neither the issue of cruelty to animals resulting from ritual slaughter nor the related issue of the wide distribution of religiously certified merchandise.
  • It did not explicitly prohibit religious ceremonies and manifestations in government buildings, such as prayers at municipal council.
  • It did not replace the Ethics and Religious Culture programme currently taught in primary and secondary schools and which violates secularism in that it is mandatory, fails to address atheism and other forms of non-belief adequately and implicitly teaches that religious belief is a prerequisite for ethics.
  • It did not address the issue of the crucifix which has hung above the speaker’s chair in the legislative chamber (the National Assembly) in Quebec City since it was installed there in the 1930s to symbolize the alliance of the government of the day with the Roman Catholic Church.

Nevertheless, the Charter set the stage for continuing secularisation. As a quasi-constitutional document its role was to establish general principles rather than specify implementation details, and those principles would have greatly facilitated future secular measures, including those listed above.

The Reaction

The proposed Charter enjoyed widespread popular support and yet opposition to it was fierce. The most vociferous opposition came from so-called multiculturalists who place religious privilege above universal human rights and thus empower religious community leaders, and from a small but very vocal gang of Islamists — in particular the Collectif québécois contre l’islamophobie (Quebec Collective Against Islamophobia) and the Muslim Council of Montreal — who pretended to speak for all Muslims. In reality, many persons from a Muslim background were sympathetic to the Charter, for example the Quebec Association of North-Africans for Secularism which is a member group of the Rassemblement pour la laïcité.

The term “multiculturalism” must be deconstructed. It sounds warm and fuzzy, and its proponents present it as a synonym for cultural diversity and a solution to racism. However it is more fairly described as a close cousin of racism. Well-known Quebec author and secularist Djemila Benhabib describes it as “multiracism.” An accurate replacement of the term “multiculturalism” would be “ethnoreligious determinism” — i.e. religion as destiny — because it is an ideology which tightly associates each ethnic community with a particular religious identity and labels members of that community with the associated belief system. It is thus a denial of freedom of conscience because it insists on assigning individuals to the religion of the community into which they were born. By conflating an innate characteristic (ethnicity) with a question of choice (belief), the latter is made to appear as if it were innate as well.

The most controversial aspect of the Charter was undoubtedly the prohibition on public servants wearing conspicuous religious symbols while on duty. Yet, there already exist regulations requiring that Quebec public servants refrain from obvious partisan political displays while on the job. Indeed, articles 10 and 11 of the Public Service Act (PSA) state that “A public servant shall be politically neutral in performing his duties” and “shall act with reserve in any public display of his political opinions.”

Ostentatiously displaying one’s political or religious affiliation while on duty as a public servant must be considered a privilege, not a right, a privilege which may legitimately be restricted in the interest of state neutrality.

In practice this means, for example, that if you go to the motor-vehicule bureau to renew your driver’s license, the agent at the counter may not wear a t-shirt emblazoned with “Vivre le Québec libre !” (a classic separatist slogan) or “Vote Liberal!” The new ban proposed in the Charter would have been a reasonable extension of that existing rule, given the partisan and often political nature of religious symbols, a modest constraint on freedom of expression for state employees during working hours. Ostentatiously displaying one’s political or religious affiliation while on duty as a public servant must be considered a privilege, not a right, a privilege which may legitimately be restricted in the interest of state neutrality.

Unfortunately, rather than concentrating the debate on this all-important job-related principle of restraint and neutrality, the government proposing the Charter made the mistake of allowing the discussion on this issue to slide into implementation details such a specific religious symbols, their size, etc., thus allowing Charter opponents to set the tone and open the door to portraying believers as victims of repressive legislation. Opponents of secularism alleged that this rule would constitute a serious threat to freedom of religion and a vehicle to persecute ethnic minorities. Indeed, opposition was so extreme that it sunk into defamatory language, accusing secularists of xenophobia, racism and similar epithets (as if race and religion were synonymous, a confusion in which multiculturalists regularly indulge), thus demonizing any support for a republican form of secularism.

It must be understood that, although the Charter was undoubtably inspired by the French tradition of laïcité, it nevertheless did not go nearly as far as current legislation in France: the Charter’s ban on ostentatious religious symbols applied neither to students nor to the public in general, but only to public employees and only while on duty.

Surveys indicated that the population of Quebec was largely sympathetic to the proposed legislation, which led some Charter opponents to denigrate Quebecers in general, accusing them of being inbred fools obsessed with identity politics.

Next blog: “Secularism Betrayed, Part II

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