Canadian Catholic leaders say they oppose the new Quebec government’s proposed law banning religious symbols as a violation of fundamental rights.
“It’s unacceptable and it’s a violation of peoples’ religious freedom, pure and simple,” said Andrew Bennett, former religious freedom ambassador and now director of the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute.
“I’d like the Quebec government to explain what they see as the threat. What’s the threat with Jews wearing the kippah; faithful Muslims wearing hijabs; and faithful Christians wearing crosses?”
Coalition Avenir Quebec trounced the governing Quebec Liberals, winning 74 seats to the Liberals’ 32. The separatist Parti Quebecois dropped from 30 seats to nine.
Premier-designate Francois Legault, who is set to announce his new cabinet on Oct. 18, promised during the campaign to enforce secularism in the province. That includes banning anyone with a position of authority, including teachers, judges, and police officers, from wearing religious symbols.
Legault told journalists he would use the notwithstanding clause to enforce the proposed law.
Bennett called on the federal government and every religious community in the country to “put significant pressure” on the newly-elected Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) government of premier-designate Francois Legault.
“Nobody is a second class citizen,” added Archbishop Christian Lépine of Montreal. “Everyone is a full citizen. Liberty of religion is not only in the private sphere but also the public sphere. It is part of being a citizen.”
“If you say a certain religious symbol does not have its place in the public square, what does it say to those who believe, whatever their faith? It’s interpreted as believers are not full citizens.”
“It’s not only the measures themselves, but on what road are we walking? What is the direction? If people see others wearing the signs of their beliefs, everyone is welcome as a full citizen. That is the full meaning of neutrality: everyone is welcome for who they are; they don’t have to hide who they are. You build peace by respecting other peoples’ beliefs.”
Bennett said the proposed law or reworked Charter of Quebec values is an “ongoing project of elites in Quebec society to advance a radical secularism that is premised on this myth that somehow the state adopting a secular position is somehow neutral.
“(Secularism) is not neutral. It makes an assertion about citizenship and about who is welcome and who is not welcome in Quebec society,” Bennett said. “Secularism is a belief system the same as any religious faith would be a belief system. But the hubris with which the secularists assert it is neutral or more enlightened than other belief systems must be challenged on an ongoing basis.”
“There’s a tremendous hypocrisy on the part of CAQ and others in Quebec society.”
Bennett noted the Quebec government wants to welcome immigrants that are French-speaking to help develop French society.
“That’s a great goal. We should have that. But a lot of people who come to Quebec from other parts of the world are devoutly religious” whether Christian, Muslim, Baha’i or other faiths, Bennett said.
“The message is ‘Help us build this French-speaking community in North America, but we don’t want all of you. You must not wear your religious symbols’ .”
While promising to ban religious symbols, the CAQ is not planning to get rid of the crucifix inside the National Assembly, something the 2008 Bouchard Taylor Commission on cultural and religious accommodation recommended.
Archbishop Lépine said the decision on whether to keep or remove the crucifix belongs to the National Assembly, but he supports having remain there because it signals that Quebec has a history and identity.
He said the crucifix is a visible sign of the “values that are part of our history and part of the Quebec identity and it symbolizes an “identity which is welcoming”.
Bennett meanwhile said he is divided about the crucifix. As a political scientist, he believes that removing it would be a sign of the state’s neutrality. “I don’t think the state should be affiliated with any particular religious community. We have a secular state but we don’t have a secular society.”
But Bennett objects to the CAQ calling the crucifix a symbol of Quebec’s heritage.
“To say that the crucifix, the instrument of our salvation is simply a symbol — that’s an insult to every faithful Catholic, every faithful Christian in this country,” Bennett said. “The Quebec government seeking to maintain the crucifix simply as some kind of museum piece is an insult of the grossest kind.
Nevertheless, Bennett said: “Do I pray and hope as a devout Catholic and member of the Catholic clergy that maybe some MNAs might pause once and a while during debate in the National Assembly to contemplate our Lord? Of course I hope that.”