Less than Divine Inspiration

Madelaine Drohan on why Quebec shouldn’t look to France for inspiration on how to balance religious freedom and freedom of expression.
By: /
September 23, 2013
Madelaine Drohan
Canada correspondent for The Economist, Author of The 9 Habits of Highly Effective Resource Economies, and contributor to The Economist Intelligence Unit

Too often events in Canada are covered by the media as if they occur in splendid isolation, divorced from what is taking place in the rest of the world. The danger in this is that valuable context is lost, as is the opportunity to debate what lessons should be drawn from elsewhere. And so it has been with the controversial charter of values proposed by the Parti Québécois government in Quebec.

Many have dismissed the idea of declaring Quebec a secular state and prohibiting civil servants from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols as a purely political ploy. It certainly contains a large dollop of opportunism on the part of a government desperate to turn a minority into a majority through whatever means are to hand.

But it didn’t spring from nowhere. Even the most cursory look at other western democracies unearths a wealth of examples of governments trying – and often failing – to find a balance between freedom of religion and freedom of expression that is acceptable to divided electorates. The government led by Premier Pauline Marois borrowed liberally from some of them in drafting the Quebec charter. Too few in Canada are scrutinizing where the ideas came from and their likely implications.

France is cited by some commentators and indeed by Ms Marois herself as an inspiration for her government’s proposed charter. In 1905 the separation of church and state that had been developing since the revolution that began in 1789 was made official under French law. But most references to the French approach deal with more recent events: A ban in 2004 on religious symbols in primary and secondary school classrooms; a country-wide ban in 2011 on full facial veils in public; and a secularism charter released earlier this month meant to reinforce and expand the 2004 law to include a prohibition of students raising questions in the name of their religion.

Quebec has taken a narrower approach than France. The charter covers only government employees, although both the premier and Bernard Drainville, the minister charged with seeing the charter through, say they hope the private sector would eventually follow suit.

Inspiration also seems to have also come from Italy, Belgium, and Germany, which are all struggling with religious accommodation. In Italy, which like Quebec has a long, shared history with the Roman Catholic church, the minister of justice decreed in 2007 that crucifixes could be displayed in public buildings because they were a symbol of Italian culture and values. Mr Drainville has made a similar defence for leaving the crucifix on the wall of the legislative chamber.

The Belgium government passed a law in 2011 banning the wearing in public of a burqa (a head-to-toe garment that also covers the face) and while there is no central policy on wearing headscarves, most schools prohibit them and courts have dismissed challenges to the practice on the grounds that it upholds the principles of equality and neutrality in schools.

In Germany, a federation like Canada, the constitutional court ruled in 2003 that teachers could wear headscarves, but that individual states could prohibit them if they so wished. Eight of the 16 lander (akin to provinces) promptly did so. But somewhat confusingly, when the state of Bavaria tried to make it mandatory for schools to display crucifixes in classrooms, the country’s constitutional court ruled that this infringed on freedom of religion and ordered them down.

Britain is currently engulfed in a row over religious symbols sparked by the decision of a college in Birmingham to prohibit students from wearing face veils. A public outcry forced the school to reverse that decision, but not before key politicians weighed in, keeping the debate alive. David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister of Britain’s coalition government, said schools should be allowed to set their own dress code and that he would support a ban on face veils at the schools his children attend. Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, said the idea of a ban made him uneasy. But Jeremy Browne, the home office minister who is also a Liberal Democrat, said the government shouldconsider the idea.

It is hard to draw any firm conclusions from these examples as to what a government truly worried about religious accommodation should do. As Australian academic Anthony Gray noted in an extensive review of international jurisprudence on various religious bans, court decisions indicate that religious freedom is not absolute and can be infringed to further interests such as equality, assimilation, esprits de corps, women’s rights and public safety. However, they also suggest there is a limit to how far a government can go. Decisions have gone against legislators when measures are seen as disproportionate or when alternative and less invasive means are available.

The PQ government has emphasized the first bit, especially the public interest in advancing equality and women’s rights. But its critics both within and without the province have pointed to the second – the disproportionate nature of the measures. It is by no means clear that in a province of 8 million people, the wearing of religious symbols by a small minority poses such significant threat to the majority that freedom of religion should be undermined.

There is one other point made by Mr Gray and by Laura Bennett in her paper for the Library of Parliament on religious symbols in the public sphere that the Quebec government appears to have overlooked. Unlike the European countries from which the PQ have drawn inspiration, Canada has been built by immigrants and has needed to accept difference in order to survive. The same holds true of Australia and the United States, where the issue is also being debated.

Quebec may look to France for support and inspiration, but the political and constitutional climate in the province and the country is firmly North American. The more rigid European approach to religious accommodation, which France exemplifies, is unlikely to work here. Quebec’s leadership should be challenged to defend its veiled references to “inspiring” cases abroad, and the media should provide Canadians with the kind of international analysis this requires.