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Devon M. Paul

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Menorah in the Workplace? That's Playing with Fire

Posted: 12/10/2012 10:59 am

The separation of church and state is a fundamental principle underlying the modern conception of a tolerant state. The principle speaks to the freedom of all to worship, or not, as they please, and to the neutrality of the state both between faiths, and between people of faith and people of no faith.

The principle underlies a modern pluralist society, but it has come under threat by the decision of the federal government to allow civil servants to display religious decorations during the Hanukkah-Christmas season for the second year in a row.

Allowing civil servants to display a nativity scene, a menorah, or any other religious decoration, at their desk or in their work space seems, on the surface, innocuous, and posing no danger to the secular nature of the state. But such displays must be considered in light of how members of non-majority faiths, or those of no-religious affiliation, may be affected and how the perception of the neutrality of the state may be swayed.

The presence of holy symbols of any religion in a government office implies both the sanction by the state of that religion, and the disapproval of the state of other religions, as well as a more general approbation of religious faith and a corresponding denunciation of the absence of faith. That is why Christmas trees have been ordered removed from government buildings in Ontario, and that is the same underlying rationale for the removal of the Ten Commandments from the Kentucky legislature.

Allowing religious displays in government offices moves far beyond the innocuous allowance of personal religious attire, such as a crucifix, a kippah or the hijab. All of those represent a personal declaration of faith, not the imprimatur of the state upon the religion in question. For the state to allow religious displays, however, is to endorse one at the expense of another, and it sets a dangerous precedent.

To allow the display of relatively inoffensive items such as a "mini nativity scene or a menorah," in the words of Treasury Board President Tony Clement, is to open the door to further displays. If a nativity scene is acceptable, why not passages from the Bible, Torah or the Qur'an? Why not the Ten Commandments or the Nicene Creed?

Thomas Jefferson spoke of a "wall of separation" between church and state. This decision of the federal government is another chink in that wall.

While many Canadians hold religious beliefs, and may understandably aspire to display those beliefs by decorating their workplaces, when one's workplace is an office of the Government of Canada, such a display becomes problematic. The government must be, and critically must be seen to be, a government for all Canadians, not just those adhering to a particular creed.

The right to free religious expression must be balanced against the right to be free from religion, and the importance of ensuring both the reality and perception of religious pluralism. For the same reason that a town council cannot begin its proceedings with the Lord's Prayer, it is ultimately inappropriate, and dangerous to religious plurality, to allow religious displays in government offices.

The state should not, and should not be seen to, grant its imprimatur to any faith, or to faith at all, if it is to remain a government for all.

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  • Hanukkah In Washington, DC

    Rabbi Levi Shemtov, left, Office of Management and Acting Budget Director Jeffrey Zients, and Rabbi Abraham Shemtov light the National Hanukkah Menorah, during an event sponsored by the American Friends of Lubavitch, on The Ellipse in Washington marking the second night of Hanukkah, in Washington, on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012. The eight-day Jewish holiday began at sundown Saturday, Dec. 8. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

  • Hanukkah in New York

    Rabbi Shmuel Butman, Director Lubavitch Youth Organization, right, and Tamir Sapir, head of the Sapir Organization in New York light the 32-foot-tall menorah that weighs about 4,000 pounds and has real oil lamps, protected from the wind by glass chimneys at the edge of Central Park, in New York, Saturday Dec. 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Lubavitch Youth Organization)

  • Hanukkah In New York

    Rabbi Shmuel Butman, Director Lubavitch Youth Organization and Tamir Sapir, head of the Sapir Organization in New York light the 32-foot-tall menorah that weighs about 4,000 pounds and has real oil lamps, protected from the wind by glass chimneys at the edge of Central Park, in New York, Saturday Dec. 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Lubavitch Youth Organization)

  • Hanukkah In New York

    Rabbi Areyah Kaltmann of the Lori Schottenstein Chabad Center in New Albany, prepares to light the menorah with the help Holocaust survivor, Abe Weinrib, Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012 in Columbus, Ohio. The start of Hanukkah on Saturday night had special meaning for Weinrib, a Holocaust survivor in Ohio who turns 100 next week. As a victim of the Holocaust, "it's a miracle I survived," Weinrib, who will turn 100 on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Lori Schottenstein Chabad Center, Laurence Gilbert)

  • Hanukkah In Columbus, Ohio

    Rabbi Areyah Kaltmann, left, of the Lori Schottenstein Chabad Center in New Albany, prepares to light the menorah with the help Holocaust survivor Abe Weinrib, Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012, in Columbus, Ohio. The start of Hanukkah on Saturday night had special meaning for Weinrib, a Holocaust survivor in Ohio who turns 100 next week. As a victim of the Holocaust, "it's a miracle I survived," says Weinrib, who will turn 100 on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Lori Schottenstein Chabad Center, Laurence Gilbert)

  • Hanukkah In Moscow

    Jews celebrate the festival of Hanukkah, in Moscow on December 8, 2012. The annual 'Festival of Lights' marks the rebellion of Maccabee Jews against the Greeks in 165 BC, which some believers say included a number of miracles pointing to divine providence. AFP PHOTO / ANDREY SMIRNOV (Photo credit should read ANDREY SMIRNOV/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Hanukkah in Moscow

    Jews celebrate the festival of Hanukkah, in Moscow on December 8, 2012. The annual 'Festival of Lights' marks the rebellion of Maccabee Jews against the Greeks in 165 BC, which some believers say included a number of miracles pointing to divine providence. AFP PHOTO / ANDREY SMIRNOV (Photo credit should read ANDREY SMIRNOV/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Hanukkah in Poland

    People gather to watch the lightning of the first candle, celebrating the beginning of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, on Grzybowski square in Warsaw, Poland, Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)

  • Hanukkah in Poland

    People gather to watch the lightning of the first candle celebrating the beginning of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, on Grzybowski square in Warsaw, Poland, Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)

  • Hanukkah in Poland

    Poland's chief rabbi Michael Schudrich, center, lights the first candle celebrating the beginning of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, on Grzybowski square in Warsaw, Poland, Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)

 
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