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Secularism and Religious Freedom in Canada: The Quebec Charter of Values

By: Carolyn Chau

Canada, like so many others, is a country built upon wounds: wounds upon its first inhabitants, the people of First Nations and, even as we extend hospitality to newcomers and are celebrated for our record of affirming cultural diversity, wounds upon the stranger also.

In May 2013, the minority Parti Quebecois government in Quebec revealed plans to propose new laws around the right of public servants to wear religious symbols while performing their duties in the public sphere.  Among them, the Charter of Values/Bill 60 outlines with alarming specificity the kinds of religious symbols that public employees would be forbidden to wear (e.g., headscarves, turbans, kippahs, and large crosses), which, if transgressed, could be punishable by loss of employment. The proposal suggests that governmental neutrality is compromised if public employees overtly display objects on their person that indicate religious affiliation.

Public outcry has been sharp and immediate across the country, and various provincial leaders hastened to declare their affirmation of diversity and inclusivity in their respective provinces.  Some see the Bill as a clear indication in Quebec of discrimination against foreigners and their religions, even as Quebec affirms the goal of neutrality and a completely secular public sphere.  Others believe that forbidding prominent religious symbols is a step in the right direction for an already secular province and country.  That said, many citizens have spoken out in defense of religious liberty, while much has also been made of the discrepancy between the Quebec government’s stated message of neutrality and their insistence that a cultural symbol of the province’s Catholic heritage, a large crucifix hanging behind the Speaker’s chair in the National Assembly, remain in place. Further, others consider that the Bill may come up against constitutional guarantees in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Regardless of one’s moral position on the issue, and some argue that Bill 60 is merely a political ploy to capture votes, the Bill has inaugurated an important public debate about freedom of religious belief and expression, a debate in which Catholics should have an interest.  While some might minimize the stakes involved in state bans on the wearing religious symbols by public servants, such laws represent a serious violation of more than one deeply held Catholic conviction.  As Dignitatis humanae instructs, “the civil authority, to which is committed the care of the common good in the temporal order, must recognize and look with favour on the religious life of the citizens.  But, if it presumes to control or restrict religious activity it must be judged to have exceeded the limits of its power” (3).  Moreover, as William Cavanaugh reminds us, the State is not at all neutral when it comes to how its citizens use their bodies, whether for war or for other forms of state allegiance. Such proposed laws expose the failure that the state is anything but neutral when it comes to religion, and that secularism, contrary to offering an absence of value, is very much at work and supplying a particular normative content.  When what we put on our bodies expresses our deepest fidelities, that expression reveals a threat to State dominance and its assertion of norms.  In Canada, today’s threat has led the citizens of this so-called secular nation to rally in defense of religious freedom.

Sadly, it appears that Quebec’s legislature is moving away from some guiding principles of intercultural encounter and engagement.  In 2007, a provincial commission was completed in Quebec to reflect on questions of “reasonable accommodation.”  The commission was spurred by a few explosive events involving accommodations for religious minorities by restaurants, gyms, and school cafeterias.  Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor and sociologist Gerard Bouchard were appointed to lead the investigation and, over the course of a year, interviewed hundreds of people across the province.  A proposal from that commission called for open secularism and an ethos of interculturalism, not a state-imposed banning of religion from the public square.  Open secularism endorses a state that allows for religious diversity to flourish while not privileging one religion over another; closed secularism fosters a closed environment to all religions.  Interculturalism espouses openness to other cultures through encounter and the building of relationships in civic life.  It seems counter-intuitive that the Quebec government should be embracing a closed model of aggressive secularism as a means of enshrining its so-called values of “the religious neutrality of the state and the equality of men and women.”

Today, the universal Church is called anew to embrace its missionary identity with passion and joy.  In Quebec, and in Canada, this mission may mean saying yes to the challenging work of exploring with patience and honesty what it means to live faithfully, defending one’s own and others’ freedom of belief and practice in a religiously pluralistic culture.