What Do Neutrality and Equality Have to Do With It?

16 September 2013

By EFC President Bruce J. Clemenger

The Premier and other representatives of the Government of Quebec have asserted that prohibiting civil servants in Quebec from wearing religious symbols or attire is neutral. The claim is that such a ban treats all equally and therefore places all on an equal footing because the ban would apply to all, regardless of their religion.

And yet the ban that has been discussed (and will soon be made public) apparently will not require most Christians or secularists to choose between religious observance – the practice requirements of their faith – and government employment. There is nothing distinctive about what we Christians, and secularists, wear. The proposal does mean, however, that adherents of those faiths that do require the personal display of symbols or that specific headgear or other clothing be worn, and who are largely recent non-European immigrants and observant Jews, are being asked to choose between their religion and being a civil servant. This is not neutral and an equal treatment of religion. Only some religious groups will be impacted.

Suppose four friends get together in a park to talk about what they will do on a beautiful late summer day. One wants to play Frisbee, another wants to toss a football around and another wants to play soccer. The last would prefer not to play a game. They cannot find consensus on which game to play so they don’t play anything. Is this a neutral solution? No, it is actually the preferred option of one of the four.

When it comes to religious symbols or distinctive clothing, secularists have none. Neither, by and large, do Christians who, as it turns out, not only preceded the secularists but secularism is in many ways the offspring of Christianity.

Some Christian women, and fewer Christian men, wear discrete crosses. For a few it may be an expression of deep religious conviction. But those I know who wear a cross do not wear it 24/7 as a requirement of their religion; for them it is optional. But then media reports have it that discrete crosses will be exempt. Interestingly, a discrete cross is likely the only religious symbol many secularist women have in their jewellery box.

Secularists and Christians – well won’t we be the lucky ones. The new law will not affect us. This “neutrality” works in our favour.

The proposed policy is, of course, not neutral nor does it place all religions (and non-religious believers, because we all believe in something if only ourselves) on an equal footing. It does say to all religions that they should conform their practices to that of the majority. The message then is not one of tolerance or accommodation but, “if it is not a requirement for us, why should it be for you? You need to be more like us. It will make us feel more secure in our identity.”

There is a Canadian dream about an open pluralism where dialogue and debate about truth, belief and practice can be had in a respectful way. In the process we all learn about not only others, but about ourselves and our beliefs and practices from listening to people who are different. And some may decide to change. An alternative way of encountering difference is for the majority to compel compliance and suppress distinctiveness. We have tried this in the past; an example is in our treatment of Aboriginal peoples. Have we not learned from our mistakes?

Recent polls suggest this is not just a Quebec issue. It’s an issue for all Canadians to consider. Lets have the debate. But let’s not pretend it is about neutrality and equality.