10/06/2013 10:17 EDT | Updated 12/06/2013 05:12 EST

Political Signs and Religious Symbols: A Dangerous Analogy

When a government attempts to limit its citizens' freedom, it must prove that the limitation is necessary to preserve the public interest. The Marois government wishes to prohibit employees of public institutions from wearing religious symbols,under threat of dismissal. However, the Marois government has not proven that such infringement of freedom is in the public interest.

Our public servants are already subject to a code of ethics that requires them to not make decisions based on religious prejudice (as well as gender, race, or sexual orientation). The Marois government says it is not enough and wants government employees to hide their affiliation with a particular religion.

Yet the government has failed to produce any empirical data to justify this questioning of the right of all citizens to work without being discriminated against because of the dress code imposed by their religious convictions. As Minister Drainville himself admitted, he has no study that demonstrates that public servants who wear religious symbols are incapable of assuming their professional responsibilities in an impartial way.

In lieu of empirical proof, Minister Drainville and his colleague Mr. Lisée ask us to be satisfied with the following, flawed reasoning which he keeps repeating time and time again: since government employees have the obligation to keep their political allegiances to themselves while performing their functions, they should also keep their religious allegiances hidden.

This is a misleading analogy, for two reasons. First, in our democracy, there is no mandatory dress code attached to membership in a political party. Such an obligation would be considered totally unreasonable. On the contrary, observance of a dress code is intimately linked to the practice of certain religions. Requiring employees to stop wearing a religious symbol or face losing their jobs is a violation of their freedom of conscience.

The second reason is that in our secular society, political parties are in power, not religious organizations. Public servants have the obligation to serve the government that employs them, whatever the ruling party. That is why State employees who are directly involved in the public service must not make apparent their political preferences in the course of their duties. This allows them to serve the government of the day while ensuring the continuity of public administration if a different party seizes power.

Applying this reasoning to the religious sphere is wrong and abusive. For the State to remain neutral with respect to religions, there is no need to request its employees to hide theirs.The obligation that public servants have to keep their political allegiance to themselves must not be used to justify forbidding them from wearing religious symbols. In terms of rights and freedoms, that is a misleading and dangerous analogy.

The Marois government must renounce imposing on people the unfair obligation to choose between access to public sector jobs and their right to freedom of conscience and religion, recognized and protected by the Charters of Rights and Freedoms.