Employers should be able to set dress codes for their workplace, but in the case of the proposed Charter of Values, the Parti Quebecois government is going too far.
One of the Charter’s proposals includes a highly controversial ban on the wearing of “conspicuous” religious symbols – kippas, turbans, hijabs, burkas and large crosses – in the public sector workplace. The ban would affect all public sector employees including daycare staff, school and hospital employees, police, judges and civil servants.
According to the Quebec government, the ban would protect the religious neutrality of the state. If the Charter becomes law, compliance with the ban will likely be more burdensome for non-Christians than Christians, and in my opinion, this calls into question the religious neutrality of the state.
It is necessary and reasonable for a secular state to require its employees to exercise their duties in the spirit of religious neutrality. This applies to both the religious and the non-religious. In the absence of evidence that Quebec has a substantial problem with public sector employees who wear religious symbols, the Charter of Values seems unnecessary and repressive.
It is also insulting. It paints all religious people with the same brush, suggesting that those who wear the symbols of their religion are incapable of doing their jobs competently and without prejudice. While there are fanatics in every religion who may cause problems, a legislated charter of values to deal with them is excessive. Well developed and properly administered human resource policies should be sufficient to deal with individual employees who do not act in a professional manner because of their religious beliefs.
Some argue that the ban on wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols in the public sector workplace is a natural extension of the separation of church and state. I disagree.
The imposition of a charter that discriminates against some because they sport visible symbols of their religion (and let’s be honest, non-Christians will be most affected) distorts the concept of separation between church and state. The separation of church and state protects the freedom of religion and its expression; it does not try to limit them by policing clothing.
Over time, the Charter could have the unintended consequence of pushing religious groups to the fringes of society under the guise of preserving the separation of church and state. Eventually, similar pressures may begin to play out in the private sector.
Public sector employees do not need to hide their religion, making it metaphorically invisible to the public eye, in order to preserve the religious neutrality of the state. A charter that forbids public sector employees from displaying religious symbols on their person unwittingly promotes a vision of society without religion. It suggests that religion should be unseen, and while some would agree, this is untenable in a society that constitutionally guarantees freedom of religion.
The Charter of Values seeks to regulate the expression of religion in the public sector. In doing so, and to the detriment of individuals’ beliefs, the Charter approaches a repudiation of the very religious neutrality that the Quebec government seeks to enshrine as a core value.
Trail, BC resident Louise McEwan is a freelance religion writer with degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation. Her blog is www.faithcolouredglasses.blogspot.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .