12/10/2012 11:28 EST | Updated 02/09/2013 05:12 EST

Menorah in the Workplace? That's Playing with Fire

Hanukkah Candles

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.

Hanukkah 2012