Tobacco, Politics and Religion


I draw an analogy among three types of restrictions: bans on tobacco use in some places, legislation restricting political displays in some contexts and Draft Bill 21 which puts some restrictions on religious symbols.

Sommaire en français Dans ce blogue je compare trois types de restrictions: les interdictions de fumer dans certains endroits, la législation limitant l’expression d’opinions politiques dans certains contextes et le Projet de loi 21 qui met certaines restrictions sur le port de signes religieux.

In many jurisdictions, the use of tobacco products is banned in certain places, for example, some workplaces. This means that smoking cigarettes or other tobacco products is forbidden there. It does not mean that people who smoke regularly may not enter there; they simply have to refrain from smoking in contexts where it is banned. This ban is about behaviour, not people. Certain behaviour—i.e. smoking—is banned, not certain people.

If a person defies the ban, would we blame the government or organization that imposed the ban? I doubt it. We would blame the person. The individual is responsible for his or her behaviour. If the ban is justified—by considerations of public health for example, and applies equally to all—then we must support it.

In Quebec, article 10 of the Loi sur la fonction publique (in English: Public Service Act) stipulates that:

10. A public servant shall be politically neutral in performing his duties.

This implies that the public servant must not display partisan political symbols or express partisan political opinions in the exercise of his or her duties. (In fact, the restriction is even stronger than that: see article 11 which imposes some duty of discretion even outside the workplace.) Does this mean that people who often wear such symbols, or who have political opinions, or certain political opinions, are excluded from employment in the public service? Of course not. It simply means that they must refrain from displaying or expressing those opinions while on the job. This restriction is about behaviour, not people. Article 12 of the same law states:

12. Nothing in this Act prohibits a public servant from being a member of a political party, attending a political meeting or making, in accordance with the law, a contribution to a political party or a local association of a political party or to a candidate in an election.

If a public servant on the job defies this rule by, for example, wearing a t-shirt with the slogan “Vote PQ” or “Andrew Sheer for PM” then would we blame the lawmakers for adopting such legislation? I doubt it. The law is reasonable and applies to everyone. The individual is responsible for his or her behaviour.

Draft Bill 21, proposed by the current CAQ government of Quebec (March 2019) would ban the wearing of religious symbols by civil servants in positions of authority. This is very similar to the ban on political displays, but considerably weaker because it does not apply to all civil servants and it has no effect outside the workplace. Religious symbols are highly partisan and often political in their implications. It is reasonable to put restrictions on their display by public servants, similar to current restrictions on political expression. The ban does not exclude anyone from public service based on their religious beliefs or affiliation. It applies to all religions. The ban on religious symbols is about behaviour, not people.

And yet, anti-secularists are up in arms about Draft Bill 21, accusing the CAQ of all sorts of horrible intentions. Why is this? The answer is obvious. Religions have traditionally been granted enormous privileges in many societies, including Canada at all levels of government, and people are so used to those privileges that they are not even aware of them. They take them for granted. And the religious themselves, when their privileges are challenged, arrogantly claim that their “rights” are under attack. Bullshit. Freedom of religion must not have priority over all other freedoms. Members of the public who go to government offices for various services, as well as children who attend public schools, have a right to services and education which do not involve partisan symbols shoved in their faces by the employee or teacher who provides the service.

If an individual violates the law, that individual is responsible for his or her behaviour. The State has no obligation to accommodate the religious beliefs or practises of public servants while they are on the job. The State has a duty to provide services in a politically and religiously neutral manner. The State employee has a duty to avoid partisan political or religious displays while on the job. What employees do off the job is their own business.

The proposed Bill 21 is simply a reasonable extension, and a rather modest and weak extension at that, of the existing Public Service Act. It does not go far enough—it should apply to all civil servants—but it is a good step in the right direction.

Next blog: The CAQ’s Secularism Bill is a Positive Step Forward