That Controversial Quebec Charter
by: John Tyrrell
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For several weeks now, the government of Quebec has been promising to table a bill - a Quebec Charter of Values - which would ban religious clothing and jewelry in the government workplace. People going for a renewal for their drivers license would no longer have to deal with the horror of talking to a clerk wearing an "oversize" crucifix... or a headscarf... or a yarmulke.
Thursday this week, the legislation was tabled (introduced) in the Quebec Parliament, renamed as a "Charter afﬁrming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests." Quite a mouthful compared to the comparatively snappy Quebec Charter of Values.
If we look at the bill itself:
Chapter I is titled:
RELIGIOUS NEUTRALITY AND SECULAR NATURE OF PUBLIC BODIES.
Its main clause reads:
1. In the pursuit of its mission, a public body must remain neutral in religious matters and reﬂect the secular nature of the State, while making allowance, if applicable, for the emblematic and toponymic elements of Québec’s cultural heritage that testify to its history.
I don't see much problem here. It makes it clear that any government office you deal with will be religiously neutral. It provides an exception which won't require the renaming of all those Quebec towns, villages, hamlets, street names, mountains etc with religious names. And also allows for St Jean Baptiste Day to remain an official holiday.
I can't object.
Chapter II is titled:
DUTIES AND OBLIGATIONS OF PERSONNEL MEMBERS OF PUBLIC BODIES
This Chapter has two divisions:
The first division reads:
DUTIES OF NEUTRALITY AND RESERVE IN RELIGIOUS MATTERS
3. In the exercise of their functions, personnel members of public bodies must maintain religious neutrality.4. In the exercise of their functions, personnel members of public bodies must exercise reserve with regard to expressing their religious beliefs.
So far so good - go into a government office, and none of the employees is supposed to try and convert you. But... was there a problem with this before in Quebec? Or is it just easy and obvious stuff leading up to what comes next? And that's division II titled:
RESTRICTION ON WEARING RELIGIOUS SYMBOLS
5. In the exercise of their functions, personnel members of public bodies must not wear objects such as headgear, clothing, jewelry or other adornments which, by their conspicuous nature, overtly indicate a religious afﬁliation.
And here we strike a problem. In my book anyway. Oh - I'll agree that I'd prefer to live in a world where people did not feel it necessary to wear their religious symbolism - or even better, to have no religious affiliation at all to show up in clothing and jewelry. But do I want to live in a world where people are forbidden to wear such clothing, jewelry and adornments? To me, this is an unwarranted restriction on personal freedom.
I don't feel threatened or intimidated by someone wearing a crucifix. Not do I feel I'm being somehow pressured into suddenly becoming a Christian. I'll say the equivalent about a turban, a yarmulke, or a headscarf. And if I did feel threatened, intimidated, or pressured by what religious symbolism another person was wearing, whose problem should it be to deal with. It would be my problem, not the other person's as long as they remained in the framework established in paragraphs 3 and 4 above.
The proposed law goes on - there's a Chapter III:
OBLIGATION TO HAVE FACE UNCOVERED
6. Personnel members of public bodies must exercise their functions with their face uncovered, unless they have to cover their face in particular because of their working conditions or because of occupational or task-related requirements.
7. Persons must ordinarily have their face uncovered when receiving services from personnel members of public bodies. How this obligation applies must be speciﬁed by the public body in its implementation policy, in accordance with the second paragraph of section 22.
When an accommodation is requested, the public body must refuse to grant it if, in the context, the refusal is warranted for security or identiﬁcation reasons or because of the level of communication required.
To be honest - here's where I begin to feel a bit hypocritical because I support this paragraph requiring an uncovered face. If you need to see someone in a government office, then it is not unreasonable to fully expect to see each other's faces. Otherwise - deal with the government by phone or online.
At a certain level, this is, I recognize, inconsistent with my acceptance of other religious garb, but let's face it - when it comes to covering the face for religious reasons, it's far more symbolic of suppressing women.
There's more detail to the bill - but those are really the important bits. And the problematic part - the one part which has been problematic from the day the Parti Quebecois announced it intended to bring in such legislation is the restriction on wearing religious symbols. And that remains, in my view, an unwarranted restriction on individual freedom - particularly unwarranted in a jurisdiction which considers itself to be a secular state.
The Quebec Charter in Action
A play in one act by John Tyrrell.
Alison, a long time civil servant in Quebec is called into her manager's office.
Manager: Alison, I have to speak to you about that "A" you have been wearing
Alison: You noticed. Isn't it lovely. My late Aunt Audrey gave it to me when I was five - almost 50 years ago - and I've worn it every day since.
Manager: Yes, but there have been complaints about that "A". You cannot wear an atheist symbol at work. It's illegal now. You cannot promote your religious beliefs by wearing its symbols at work.
Alison: But it's not for an A for atheist. It's "A" for Alison. It always has been. And anyway, I'm not now nor never was an atheist - I'm an Anabaptist.
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