Quebec has thrown Ottawa a curveball. The Parti Québécois government will introduce a “charter of Quebec values” to the National Assembly of Quebec sometime this fall, Bernard Drainville, a provincial cabinet minister, announced on Tuesday. The aim is to “entrench” in Quebec law the religious neutrality of the state through measures that include, at their core, a dress code for public employees. Hijabs, kippahs, turbans, and “conspicuous” pectoral crosses are among the items they would be forbidden to wear on the job.
Squaring laïcité québécoise with religious freedom as guaranteed by the Canadian constitution will be a challenge. Jason Kenney, Canada’s minister of employment and social development in the Conservative-party cabinet of prime minister Stephen Harper, has vowed that the federal government will defend “the constitutional protections to freedom of religion to which all Canadians are entitled.” Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal party, objects to “forcing people to choose between their work and their religion, to set out an idea of second-class Quebecers who would not qualify to work because of their religion.” Tom Mulcair, leader of the New Democratic party, calls the charter “an attempt to impose state-mandated discrimination against minorities in the Quebec civil service.”
The religious neutrality that the Quebec government says it would like to entrench may be unconstitutional in its details, but don’t confuse law with politics. What the Parti Québécois stands to entrench for itself is its position with Québécois who prize their francophone identity and difference. In this fight with anglophone Canada to the west, Quebec’s Premier Pauline Marois may already have won what matters to her.
If the charter passes the National Assembly of Quebec and then holds up in federal court, the distinctiveness of Quebec culture is enshrined in law, strengthening the case for secession, a goal that Marois and her party represent. The case for secession is strengthened also if the charter is struck down in court: See how the heavy hand of Ottawa bars us from setting public standards that reflect our values. Legal opinion so far suggests that the charter will be found unconstitutional.
It’s vague and arbitrary in that the definition of terms like “conspicuous” and “overt” would apparently be left to the judgment of an employee’s supervisor or, if it comes to that, a court. So would the definition of “religious.” Would a woman who wears purple every day during Lent be in violation of the new rules? Elected officials would be exempt from the dress code, and place names (Île Sainte-Hélène, Sainte-Foy, etc.) and public monuments (the towering cross on Mount Royal) would be spared for the sake of history and heritage.
To define “religion” precisely is difficult and perhaps impossible. Most of us are confident that, to borrow from Potter Stewart, we know it when we see it. Except when we don’t. The Charter of Quebec Values at least has the virtue of bringing into focus what secularism shares with religion and how it can function as just another religion that disavows the label, like certain strains of post-Protestant “Jesus movement” Christianity.
We would be quick to condemn as theocratic excess a ban on wearing tzitzit in Saudi Arabia. But in Quebec — or France, for that matter — secular elites see no problem with criminalizing such religious expression, because in their view they’re even-handed, saying no to every religion as they define religion. They’re blind to how what they regard as neutral attire is, on some people of orthodox faith, mufti, which is also a statement bearing on religious belief. Liberal Catholic priests in the 20th century, for example, were expressing a particular view of the Catholic priesthood when they wore neckties instead of Roman collars. What the architects of the proposed charter call “Quebec values” happen to be secular values. Entrenching them in Quebec law means establishing them in state law, and the line between that and establishing secularism as a de facto state religion is not bright.