Secularism or Discrimination?

By Tanya Silverman

Photo by J. Singh.

Quebec’s Parti Quebecois, the political party that currently rules the province, proposed a controversial “charter of values” earlier this September.

If passed, public workers (i.e. police officers, hospital staff, civil servants, judges, teachers, and prison staff) will be forbidden to wear religious articles (i.e. kippas, large crucifixes, burqas, and turbans). Less prominent accessories, such as jewelry with small crucifixes or stars of David, would be acceptable under the law.

Sociology Professor Morton Weinfeld, also the Director of the Canadian Ethnic Studies at Montreal’s McGill University, considers this proposed charter to be “abominable.”

“In the North American context, it is surreal, and of course discriminatory, to think that any government today is proposing to restrict access to employment in a key sector to a group of people based on their religious beliefs – or by the fact that they are too religious,” Weinfeld tells BTR.

The professor, who has published a multitude of research on Canadian Jewish studies, is certainly not the only one who opposes the charter of values. In Montreal, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Sikh, and non-religious individuals have expressed their outrage through public protests.

Weinfeld sheds some light on the political background to the proposed charter of values. The Parti Quebecois is a minority, pro-separatist, French-speaking group which has grown unpopular, all while Quebec has been facing many economic difficulties. Generally, issues of religious apparel in Quebec had been resolved by a “step-by-step, ad-hoc basis,” through courts and by local levels, but now, the Parti is proposing to codify a general policy statement.

“They’ve latched onto this issue as a way to try and mobilize their Francophone, Catholic base, and hope that they can use this to their advantage in the next provincial election,” he says.

“Obviously Quebec is following France’s lead here,” Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology and secularism at California’s Pitzer College, tells BTR.

To briefly examine the religious-garment regulations in France, in 2011, the French government banned the public wearing of face-covering veils. This was after France, in 2004, had forbidden these veils and other “ostentatious” religious symbols from being worn in schools. More recently in September, a controversial charter was passed requiring that all state-administered schools visibly post a set of fifteen articles that mandate a non-religious, Republican education system. Article 13 can be interpreted as implementing the 2004 ruling: “Nobody can avail of their religious affiliation in order to refuse to obey rules applicable in our schools.”

Such religious-wear regulations have not only occurred in the Francophone world. In Germany, federal courts decided that its states hold the power to ban teachers from wearing veils — half of these states have applied this precedent since its 2003 ruling. As far as recent occurrences go, in September, a German court ruled that a Muslim schoolgirl from Morocco would be required to participate in a co-ed swimming classes, as she could wear a “burkini”, an all-body swimsuit.

Zuckerman perceives such laws as an assertion of Western society over the perceived Muslim fundamentalism that threatens not only secularism, but national character and cultural homogeneity.

“We have to see this as a reaction against Islam, because why wasn’t this brought up 25 years ago or 35 years ago?” says Zuckerman. “People have been wearing crucifixes and kippas for years and that didn’t seem to bother anybody, but the outward symbols of Islam — especially the covering of women — are more threatening.”

These battles are, according to Zuckerman, “symbolic at root,” and confront issues like freedom of expression and democracy. Such controversies test boundaries on whether religious philosophy can be addressed, or secularist policy could be enforced, in a tolerant (or intolerant) manner.

“I think these issues are going to come about with greater frequency,” Zuckerman predicts.