Quebec’s charter of values is misguided and intolerant

Illustration by Jennifer Vo

THE PARTI QUÉBÉCOIS’ (PQ) proposal to entrench religious neutrality and state secularism through its charter of Quebec values is puzzling to say the least.

If passed, the legislation would ban employees in the public sector from wearing “ostentatious” religious symbols such as turbans, hijabs, kippahs and large crucifixes in the workplace to ensure that “all Quebecers are treated fairly and equally by the state.”

It’s hard to see a reason why Quebec, which in its government is already vastly secular, would adopt such legislation. This has led a number of experts to speculate that the PQ has other motives, which include gaining a larger electoral base and fuelling the separatist movement.

Personally, I don’t really care what the motives are. It’s a terrible proposition, no matter the political reasons behind it.

For one thing, the values charter is divisive and attacks minority groups. Its ban on religious symbols will force many to choose between their religion and their jobs, which should never be the case in a democracy. The charter is also more difficult on those groups for whom religious symbols are more vital to their practice and faith. It is as if the Quebec government believes hiding any indication of one’s beliefs is more important than promoting religious tolerance.

One must also wonder why certain religious symbols are deemed “ostentatious,” while others are not. What is the difference between a small cross and a large one? Both are forms of religious expression, so why is the larger one banned? My question to Bernard Drainville, the PQ minister in charge of the new charter, is this: If you’re going to dip your toe in the pool of religious intolerance, why not jump right in?

The legislation also seems to assume that people with religious convictions are bound to bring them into the workplace. Well, news flash: our attire does not change our ability to be neutral, nor will removing our religious symbols strip us from our religious beliefs.

Nothing says that a woman wearing a hijab and a man wearing a kippah cannot do their jobs as employees of the state. The thousands of civil servants working in Ottawa hold their own political views, but that certainly doesn’t prevent them from working under a Conservative government to the best of their abilities. So what’s the difference?

To be clear, I’m not arguing against state secularism and neutrality. The current conflicts in Syria and the Middle East remind us of how messy things get when religion and politics get mixed together. But that does not exonerate the PQ for proposing legislation that stomps on certain fundamental human rights.

I truly hope the Quebec government will come to its senses and see the good that comes from accommodating minorities. But if that is beyond reach, then I at least hope the PQ realizes there’s more to a person’s beliefs than the clothes on one’s back.