The Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) government has introduced what's known as "an Act respecting the laïcite of the State." This is the latest attempt by a Quebec government to enact secularism legislation. The bill will prohibit civil servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols at work.
Quebec's historical concern about religion is understandable given the overwhelming presence of the Catholic Church in the past. However, religious institutions are no longer very dominant. In a recent Pew Research Center study, 64 per cent of Canadians say religion plays a less important role today that it ever has.
Preserving French culture is also important. It enriches not only Quebec but all of Canada.
But Bill 21 is a cautionary tale. The proposed law may have real unintended consequences. Rather than protecting French culture and safeguarding the public against religious coercion, it may enact a new dominant and coercive state-directed civil religion.
Opposition to Bill 21
Bill 21 has met with widespread opposition and protest. Constitutional scholars and legal experts argue that it violates Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, particularly the section regarding freedom of religion. Academics, teachers' federations, the Canadian Bar Association's Quebec branch, women's, Jewish, Christian and Muslim organizations are all opposed.
Bill 21 is based on
So what does it mean to behave with faith in public?
This is a question not just being confronted by Quebec. There are angry voices across Canada more than willing to use heavy-handed laws against religious and ethnic communities. But using domination and coercion in the public arena is unacceptable regardless of whether it's by people of faith, business leaders, economists, politicians, leaders of charitable organizations or anyone else.
Religions contribute to public life
Religion cannot simply be banished from public life.
Faith and religious communities make useful contributions to society. They provide meaning, purpose and ultimately direction for citizens and politicians facing tough decisions. They mobilize help for people in need in our communities. They motivate people to make donations, volunteer in charitable organizations and even run for political office. They can help communities celebrate and grieve in public moments of joy and tragedy.
Faith is, in fact, unavoidably public.
Religious freedom is not freedom from responsibility. Rather, behaving faithfully in public is freedom to take responsibility for the rights and well-being of others. Religious freedom safeguards this public role for people of faith.
Quebec might lead the way with another approach based on equality. The province has a diverse and dynamic public life; it should build on that dynamic diversity by enlisting faith communities, business, labour and civil society to together protect the public arena.
In a positive way, people from these sectors can scrutinize and hold each other accountable against domination and coercion from any single group. The church-state relationship today has become a diverse public commons with many bodies, including religious ones, serving a public purpose.
Honouring religious freedom and behaving faithfully in public not only protects the rights of individuals but also safeguards the integrity of democratic governments.
In the 1940s, the renowned theologian Reinhold Niebuhr reminded us that humanity's "capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but (its) inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary."