08/22/2013 08:16 EDT | Updated 10/22/2013 05:12 EDT

The PQ Is Going Too Far in Banning Religious Symbols

A leak -- maybe from the Parti Québécois government itself -- has made public, as the main points of the soon-to-be-tabled Charter of Quebec Values.

Practically everyone in Quebec supports the separation of religion and state. This principle, born of the European Enlightenment, ensures that no church controls the state, but also -- and just as importantly -- that the state does not dictate to individuals the way to practice their faith, or their lack thereof.

Quebec has been a de facto secular society for a while already. Is it a good thing? Absolutely!

The issue is more about how the principle of neutrality of the state on religious matters is concretely applied. And that is where the PQ has got it wrong.

Taking a breather

Let's pause for a moment and apply some common sense.

How would a turban-wearing computer Sikh man working in a government ministry undermine the principle of separation of religion and state? By wearing his turban, is he trying to impose his beliefs on his fellow citizens?

How could an emergency room doctor with a hijab (with her face uncovered) be considered so dangerous for the rest of society that one would want to forbid her from any outward sign of religious identity?

How could one believe that a kippa-wearing Jewish librarian is thus trying to impose his religion on society?

Practicing Christians, as opposed to, say, practicing Sikhs and Jews, do not need to wear any visible religious symbols. Yet, what can guarantee that a Christian judge, despite not wearing any overt religious symbols, would not try to decide a case based on his religious convictions?

An observant person wearing a religious symbol is not necessarily less moderate, less reasonable, or more dangerous than somebody wearing none. I can think of dozens of turban-wearing Sikhs and kippa-wearing Jews who share liberal values, including the separation of religion and state and the equality of women and men. I can also think of dozens of people not wearing any religious symbol but hold strong religious beliefs and would like their version of religion to be reflected in public policy. I met quite a few of them when I fought for same-sex marriage as an elected member of the House of Commons.

Freedom of religion is a universal, fundamental right and that includes the right to manifest personal religious belief publicly. For example, section 10 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union reads:

Article 10. Freedom of thought, conscience and religion

1.Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right includes freedom to change religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or in private, to manifest religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

Religious neutrality: an obligation on the state, not on its citizens

The principle of state neutrality on religion (in French : laïcité) places an obligation not to promote any religion and to insure a space where all the beliefs -- and non-beliefs -- are on the same footing. It also ensures that religion does not dictate the actions of public authorities.

Secularism: Not about what one wears, but about what one thinks

Secularism does not require a crackdown on religious life. It does not necessitate an obligation on citizens -- including civil servants -- to hide their religious beliefs.

The state should not be in the business of telling citizens what to think and what not to think, what to believe and what not to believe. Nor should state authorities dictate what clothes one should wear.

Secularism is not about what one wears, but what one thinks. Religious neutrality does not reside in one's clothing but in one's mind. Wearing a turban or a kippa is a personal choice and has no incidence on one's impartiality.

I hope that the Parti Québécois comes to realize that it is erring with this draft policy. It should go back to the drawing board and return with a new approach that builds on the Quebec values of liberty, equality and diversity.

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