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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Atheist Freethinkers Support the Quebec Charter of Values ... with Reservations

There's a debate going on in Canada over the so-called "Charter of Values" proposed by the government of Quebec. The fact that the governing party is a separatist party (Parti Québécois) makes the debate much more interesting. (That's Premier Pauline Marois in the photo below.)

The main issue concerns how public servants present themselves to the public. The new law proposes to ban outward signs of religion on the grounds that public servants should represent a secular government. What this means in practice is that Sikh men won't be allowed to wear turbans and kirpas and Muslim women won't be allowed to wear hijabs or niqabs. Christians can't wear large crosses. Atheists can't wear a large red letter "A" on their lapel.

Opinion in Quebec is pretty evenly divided but most of the rest of Canada sees this (mostly incorrectly) as an infringement on fundamental rights and freedoms.

Atheist groups are struggling with this issue. Here's what the Atheist Freethinkers say in today's press release: The Quebec Charter of Values: A major advance towards secularism.
Montreal, 17th September 2013 — Atheist Freethinkers (LPA-AFT), an association which promotes secularism and supports the rights of atheists, welcomes the intention of the government of Quebec to adopt a so-called Charter of Values which would formally establish the secular status of the Quebec state. The project is outlined on its website

The proposed Charter would formally declare separation of religion and state, the religious neutrality of the state and the secular nature of its institutions. It would impose an ethics of restraint and religious neutrality for public servants. It would prohibit obvious religious symbols in the public service. And it would establish clear guidelines for so-called “reasonable” accommodations. Furthermore, it would make it mandatory for any client of public services to have one’s face uncovered in order to be served. All of these measures go in the direction of formalizing the secular nature of the state and assuring the independence and autonomy of the state from religion. This is very good news.

However, like most who support the proposed Charter, we do so with some reservations. Firstly, the title “Quebec Charter of Values” is very badly chosen. What Quebec requires is a Charter of Secularism, a charter which expresses values which have universal, human import, the values of the Enlightenment.

Secondly, it has not been proposed that the large crucifix be removed from the wall of the Quebec National Assembly in Quebec City. This object was installed there in 1936 by the Duplessis government of the day, with the aim of consecrating its alliance with the Catholic Church. If the crucifix is a “Quebec value,” it represents the worst possible value in this context. Its presence in the most important venue of the Quebec state is a blatant violation of secularism, a glaring symbol of non-secularism! The Charter should stipulate its removal – to a museum for instance. To leave it in place would be totally inconsistent and expose the authors of the Charter to charges of hypocrisy. However, it is important to realize that keeping the crucifix in the National Assembly is not explicitly stipulated in the proposed Charter. In fact, this crucifix is not even mentioned there.

Thirdly, the proposed ban on state employees wearing religious symbols while on duty has been poorly formulated. The plan is to include an official dress code in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, this Charter is a quasi-constitutional document and should stipulate only the principle that public servants must exercise restraint – so that public services remains neutral with respect to religion – and establish a mechanism for the implementation of this principle. The dress code and other aspects of the behaviour of public servants belong to the implementation of this principle and should not be included in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms itself. In that way, the details and timing of the implementation would remain open to democratic debate.

The draft Charter was released barely a week ago and we continue to study it. Other aspects of the project may require critical analysis. Moreover, a completely secular charter would include several provisions not included in the announced project – such as cutting public funding to private religious schools; banning prayer at municipal council meetings; banning prayer rooms in government buildings; ending religious accommodations granted for ritual slaughter of animals; prohibiting mutilation of the human body without valid medical reasons and without the consent of the adult concerned; withdrawal of the Ethics and Religious Culture program from public schools; and removal of tax incentives to religious institutions and members of religious orders. These omissions remain to be addressed.

The organization Atheist Freethinkers commends the government for its courage. We note that the government is not responsible for the inflammatory and demagogic excesses of the exaggerated political opposition that arose against its attempt at secularization, even if such excesses could have easily been predicted. This project is not an exercise in identity politics. The numerous accusations of intolerance, xenophobia and even racism are extremely dishonest and even defamatory. Nevertheless, the government could have prevented the worst and minimized the damage by avoiding any measure which the opposition might use as an excuse. Excluding religious symbols is necessary in order to ensure not only the religious neutrality of the public service but also the perception of neutrality. By the same token, the government must not only avoid identity politics but also the perception of such politics. If the proposed Charter had specified the removal of the crucifix from the National Assembly, if its authors had chosen a title with more universal scope, if the plan for gradual removal of religious symbols had been better presented, then the intellectual vacuity of the opposition would have been obvious and that opposition would have been greatly defused.

Despite our reservations, we support the proposed Charter. It could serve as a model for other Canadian provinces and jurisdictions, each adapting the Charter appropriately and provided of course that the model is improved upon – in particular by avoiding the failings discussed above.

As atheists, we greatly value freedom of religion because atheists and apostates are often among the first victims when that freedom is violated. We know that freedom of religion is incomplete or even hollow if it does not include freedom from religion. Thus secularism is important not only for us as atheists but also for believers: it is essential that public institutions, i.e. state institutions, be independent of any religion and, at the same time, that total freedom to practice the religion of one’s choice, or to practice none, be protected in the private sphere and in the public sphere outside of such institutions.


  1. That's a very nuanced response from Atheist Freethinkers, and they are being politically savvy in keeping on the Quebec's gov't's good side in order to try and take advantage of this opportunity to open up discussion on what it means to be a "secular society".

    OTOH, not being constrained by any such political considerations, I can quite freely state that as far as I am concerned the accusations that the PQ gov't is motivated primarily by "identity politics" and is flirting with racism and xenophobia are fully justified. I don't see it as a mere oversight that the crucifix in the National Assemply and prayers (invariably Christian) in municipal council meetings are exempt from this proposed charter. By what reasoning are those consistent with state "neutrality" on religious matters, while a doctor wearing a turban is not?

    The video below, of a campaign ad from last year's provincial election, contains a revealing moment at about 0:42. At that point, Marois talks about "our values," a phrase echoed in the name of this proposed Charter of Values. Take note of the image that is used to illustrate "our values":

  2. Frankly the AF is being horribly naive if it thinks that this motion has anything to do with promoting secularism and is not just about being spiteful towards Muslims.

    When they remove the giant honking cross from the top of Mont-Royal I will start to believe the PQ. Or better yet, if they wanted to make Quebec more secular they could just fix the school system. Right now the francophone system is explicitly Catholic and the anglophone one explicitly Protestant. They dont need a stupid charter to change this, the education system and the courses given are under total provincial control, but no.

  3. I thought CFI Canada's take on this was right on the mark:

    The Centre for Inquiry applauds governments courageous enough to debate secularism and to point out when religious accommodations have gone too far. The Charter of Quebec Values squanders that needed opportunity and risks alienating citizens across Canada against the positive benefits of church-state separation. Secular society should be seen as a prerequisite to guarantee freedom of religion.

    The government speaks of being motivated by the desire to create consistency and clarity, but their proposal does neither. The Charter would prohibit teachers from wearing religious symbols, but children would continue to be indoctrinated at taxpayer expense through public subsidies to faith schools.

    A secularism charter should take the crucifix off the wall at the National Assembly, remove Christian prayer at public city council meetings, and revoke special property tax exemptions for religious buildings.

    The Charter has precisely the wrong aim, to take religion away from people, while ignoring institutional favouritism which biases the public square away from state neutrality and is therefore the more serious threat to equality of treatment between believer and nonbeliever.

    Such equality also requires the same rules on government employees with respect to constraints on freedom of expression, regardless of the kind. Government employees are often subject to dress codes which limit freedom of expression. Where such constraints are already imposed, special exemptions for religious symbols has been as an exception to the rule.

    CFI does not support a blanket ban on public employees wearing religious symbols. But we do stress that religious forms of expression are due no more respect than secular forms. Where state neutrality or its perception is an issue the same rules should apply to all forms of expression.

    1. The CFI response is great. The deficiencies in this charter are huge, and instead of targeting serious issues are going after about as minor an issue as one could conceive.

      I also agree (somewhat) with those who think that this policy is racist (or whatever the term would be for targeting certain religions). Part of the proposed 'policy' is to allow government workers to wear small symbols of their faith, while banning larger ones. This is uneven in its nature, as some religions require certain clothing or other 'large' symbols of faith (turbans, etc). To be truly equable, it needs to be all or nothing. This provides a loophole which largely favours Christians.

    2. In a move cynical even by the standards of politics I think the PQ has identified a demographic that they know will not support their policies and catering to the latent xenophobia of a significant proportion of their electorate are going about alienating this demographic to the point where they will consider leaving the province.

      While I think this attachment to religious symbols by adults is childish in the extreme I say knock yourselves out if you want to wear the same clothes and nick nacks that your goat herder ancestors did as long as it does not impair your ability to interact in the public and government spaces of a secular society.

      In private I'd say the sky is the limit as long as it's consensual and you don't fuck with the children (which seems to be beyond the ethical and moral capabilities of most religions).

  4. There should be no religious symbols on the walls of public areas of government buildings, or vehicles, or on uniforms of uniformed government employees. An exception can be made for displays of student art in schools. However, secularism applies to government, it does not apply to the citizens. Requiring that government employees who do not wear uniforms refrain from wearing anything that identifies their own religious beliefs while working is intrusive. Wearing accessories is a form of individual expression, not an act of government or a misuse of government property for nongovernment purposes. I do not agree with these policies, first in France and now in Canada, to stop government employees from wearing sectarian religious accessories. Such a heavy handed policy serves little purpose and interferes with free exercise.

  5. Quebec is wrong on so much and now another thing.
    The state being said to be the people who work for it is not much different from the old tyranny's saying the individual is secondary to the state.
    The people come first and no jazz about the banning of religious things of the people to prove the state is not religious enforcing.
    The people are intelligent to understand its just a religious symbol of that guy and not the government.
    It smacks of a hostility against Christianity and maybe the others.
    A aggressive attack.
    Its really saying religion is bad and dangerous and breaking a social contract with religious people about getting along.
    Its oppressive, silly, but worthwhile to those who teach there is a conspiracy againat our Christian foundations behind claims of state neutrality.
    These people got nothing else to do.
    Once again religion is very important.
    A bridge too far left wingers in Quebec??