09/15/2013 01:05 EDT | Updated 11/15/2013 05:12 EST

Quebec's Charter of Values Disregards Human Dignity

Quebec's proposed Charter of Values would ban the donning of "conspicuous" religious symbols by government sector employees, teachers, judges, and those working in hospitals and daycares. The banned religious symbols will include hijabs, niqabs, turbans, kippas, and large visible crucifixes by on-duty employees. Those providing or receiving public services will be required to reveal their faces. The stated justification for the Quebec Charter of Values is to preserve the neutrality of the state and secularism.

In our view, the proposal is a dangerous one that seeks to carry out seemingly neutral goals through unjustifiable and clearly harmful means. Asking people to abandon expression of their beliefs or to forego employment and services, is more of a threat than a choice. Further, goals of neutrality and secularism are already protected by the laws of Quebec and of Canada. There is no pressing or substantial need to address that goal with new legislation.

Even if the goal was pressing, the purported means to achieve it are seriously and disproportionately harmful, and the bias and discrimination that would result is unjustifiable. To ban the wearing of religious symbols is to violate freedom of religion and belief, freedom of expression, and the right to equality.

States not only have the duty to respect these rights and freedoms, but also the pro-active duty to protect and promote them. The proposed Charter of Values, to the contrary, appears to be a pro-active effort to quash rights. However well-intentioned the Charter of Values may be to some, it results in the "othering" of religious and cultural minorities, and relegates them to the sidelines.

A State has no right to tell a person what to wear. For some, clothing such as long skirts worn by Mormons, or kippas worn by Jews, or turbans worn by Sikhs, or hijabs or niqabs worn by Muslims are all symbols that are inextricably mixed with a person's beliefs, values, and expression. To deny this fundamental choice of a how a person expresses his or her values or even simply their preference, is antithetical to respecting human dignity.

Coercion is coercion -- whether it is telling someone what to wear or what not to wear, in order to comply with a belief (religious or non-religious). Furthermore, coercion undermines true personal choice, expression, and equality.

Arguments that proscribing religious clothing will create equality for women are flawed arguments. Telling a woman what she cannot wear is as disrespectful and disempowering as telling a woman what she must wear. The real message of equality is to allow people to choose for themselves, free from pressures of peers, family, religion and the State. And if a woman chooses to wear garb that rejects certain beliefs, that is an expression in itself that merits protection.

Freedoms of religion, belief, expression and the right to equality are sacrosanct in a democracy. These rights were recognized by the international community after World War II as rights foundational to peace and security and rights which are inherent in human dignity -- i.e. these rights do not exist because they are conferred by the State, but rather, these rights are the birthright of every human being. Any infringement of these rights must be shown as clearly necessary to achieve a legitimate goal, as well as being proportional and of minimal impairment.

Intolerance of difference -- religious and otherwise -- is a slippery slope that at its worst can lead to dehumanization of those different from us, and to an ensuing cascade of serious human rights violations. Respect for human dignity and individuals' fundamental freedoms is the antidote to intolerance, and is a prerequisite for flourishing societies which champion individual participation and contribution.

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