The newly elected government of Québec has indicated that it intends to ban civil servants in positions of authority (including police officers and judges) from wearing religious dress or symbols such as the turban or hijab.
The new government views the wearing of religious dress by civil servants not as an act of personal religious or cultural expression but instead as a political act — an act of the state — that is incompatible with the requirement that the state remain neutral in matters of religion.
The ban will have the effect of excluding the members of certain religious minorities from civil service jobs. And it will, almost certainly, breach religious freedom under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
At the same time, the government has confirmed that a crucifix will continue to hang in the provincial legislature. The government insists that the crucifix is simply a “heritage object” and “part of our history” and so its presence in the legislature doesn’t violate the requirement that the state remain neutral in matters of religion.
Even if this practice breaches religious freedom, the Canadian courts have held that the internal operations of the legislatures in the various provinces are not subject to judicial oversight.
Several European countries have made similar arguments about the crucifix. The Italian government, for example, has justified the hanging of crucifixes in public school classrooms on the grounds that it’s a symbol of the country’s national identity, its Christian heritage and the civic values of its political community — values that are said to be traceable to Christian doctrine.
Proponents argue it’s cultural
Proponents say that the crucifix in the legislature serves as a symbol not of Christianity but of a secular community that has been shaped by Christianity. When the province hangs a crucifix in the legislative chamber, it is not favouring or supporting Christianity as the true faith, it’s simply recognizing the historic and conceptual link between Christian doctrine and the national identity and civic values of the community. Or so goes the argument.
In truth, the civic values of modern liberal democracies like Québec have other, more obvious precursors.
The Christian heritage argument conflates the plausible claim that certain elements of Christian doctrine made possible the separation of church and state in the West (secularism) with the more problematic claim that tolerance and democracy are Christian values that arose directly or significantly from Christianity — and so may be symbolized by the crucifix.
This link between religion or religious heritage and politics may help to reinforce the core principles of a political community and its connection to its members.
Christian rituals or values may serve as a civil religion that inspires and binds citizens, contributing to a richer or more substantial form of national identity than one that is based simply on a shared commitment to democratic principles.
Not just a side effect
At the same time, the link between Christian morality and national identity or political community serves to exclude the members of some groups. Indeed, it appears that the exclusion of non-Christians or those who don’t identify with the Christian tradition is not simply a regrettable side effect of the attempt to bolster civic union and national identity.
The debate about hanging a crucifix in the Québec legislature is in some ways similar to the debate in the United States over the posting of the Ten Commandments in public buildings.
Supporters of the public display of the Ten Commandments argue that it’s an important historical document that helped to shape contemporary Western law and society. The identity of the political community, even if now understood in secular terms, is tied to a religious history that ought to be acknowledged.
There is something to this claim — that the political community has a history that its members should know about, if only to understand better their current circumstances.
The problem with this attempt to link the Ten Commandments to the contemporary legal order is that the Commandments do not appear to have had either a unique or even significant role in shaping contemporary Western law.
There seems little doubt that those hoping to post the Ten Commandments in public spaces want to affirm the Commandments’ truth as God’s law and to link the Christian or Judeo-Christian tradition to the American national identity. They realize, though, that if they don’t provide a secular reason for the posting, it will be found to breach the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Nonetheless, the proponents regard the United States as a Christian nation and believe that its public institutions should reflect that, both symbolically and substantively.
The U.S. Supreme Court recognized this as the motive behind the posting of the Ten Commandments when it ruled that the practice was unconstitutional.
The motivation behind the keeping the crucifix in the Québec legislature, however, seems more complicated.
Anxiety about national identity?
Many of the contemporary supporters of the crucifix in the legislature may believe that it symbolizes the sacrifice of Jesus and God’s mercy and that these spiritual truths should be affirmed in the civic sphere. But it seems clear that support for the practice comes also from those who no longer formally adhere to Catholicism.
The display of the crucifix appears to be a response to a general anxiety about national identity. For many Québecois, the crucifix may reaffirm the idea of a national culture in the context of a changing population and a perceived challenge to shared values.
The recognition of a link between Christianity and the identity and civic values of the Québec community may serve to strengthen the civic bond and to create a sense of identity among many Québecois.
But it seems sadly obvious that this link between Christianity and civic culture also serves to mark off as un-Québecois the members of some religious groups; to signal that they are not full or proper members of the civic community.
The message is that other religious traditions, and most notably Islam, are incompatible with the province’s civic/secular culture.
The commitment to inclusion and religious neutrality becomes a basis for excluding the members of some religions.