The Cardus Daily

Secular Does Not Mean What You Think it Means

The Parti Québécois (PQ) announced yesterday that, if elected in Quebec’s upcoming election, it would introduce a secular charter.

What exactly would a secular charter look like? Well, see if you can figure it out from the CBC’s report:

Before having it contested, we will present it, debate it and adopt it. If it has to be contested, for now it’s a hypothetical question. We will fight for what we need because we think this is essential for the public’s well-being by taking its values and writing them in a charter . . . we are at a new moment in our lives and believe the state’s neutrality and the fundamental values, equality between men and women must guide us toward a life together in Quebec.

Maybe something got lost in translation. But, there’s not much clarity to be gained by the reports in Le Journal or Le Devoir either. What I glean is this:

  • The PQ wants to adopt a secular charter for Quebec which will ensure the neutrality of the state toward all religions, but . . .
  • The state is guided by fundamental values which remain unarticulated but which nonetheless . . .
  • Stand against “retrograde currents” which are transversing the world (Marois’s words, not mine)
  • The charter would ensure that equality rights would supersede religious rights, but . . .
  • The charter will integrate freedom of religion
  • This charter would outlaw religious symbols and actions in public institutions, agencies, and on public employees except . . .
  • The crucifix in the National Assembly would remain in place because Quebeckers don’t want to huck all of their traditions and heritage overboard for the sake of secularism
  • The charter would become law, and “accommodations” must be sought by way of the courts.
  • Marois would be willing to evoke Section 33 of the Charter (the rarely used “notwithstanding clause”) to protect its secular charter from being overruled by same.

One can agree—as I do—that the state should not privilege any particular religion, yet still find all kinds of problems with such a “secular charter.” The first is the utterly incomprehensible inconsistency of the whole thing. Religious symbols are unacceptable in public office, except in the National Assembly? In other words, it’s okay for “the people” to have a crucifix to remind them of their heritage or beliefs, just not, you know, “people.” Second, it is intended to protect “fundamental values” which are left unarticulated. What are these values, how did Quebec find them, and on what basis are they founded? In what ways, and why, are they so different from “Canadian values”? We don’t know. Marois never tells us. She does suggest that equality between the sexes is a fundamental value, but what, pray tell, does this have to do with Navdeep the tax collector’s turban or Marie the meter maid‘s crucifix? Absolutely nothing. As Iain Benson noted via a quote from George Grant, “values” is “an obscuring language for morality used when the idea of purpose has been destroyed.” It means just about as much as the term secular, which is to say, nothing. Here’s Benson again:

The current idea about “secular” that is so unfair is that there is some supposedly “secular” sphere that just happens to include government, law, public education and such things as medical ethics and that the only beliefs that should be pre-emptively shorn from this realm are those based upon or coming from religious believers and their communities. Were this true, which it is not, only the beliefs of atheists and agnostics would have power and presence in the public sphere and that would be unfair and unjust . . . What we usually mean when we speak of “secular” is, in fact, the word “public” and more often than not what we seek is the proper language to discuss religion in relation to the public sphere.

There is no problem with religious symbols in the public service in Quebec. And even if there was, Marois is handling the complexities of religion and the state with all the grace of an ox performing a grand jeté. One gets the sense that Marois is doing what leaders of the PQ do best: finding new ways to exert provincial authority while flipping the canard to the feds, even if it means running roughshod over the rights of Quebecers.

Rather than subjecting us all to a discussion of secularism in saecula saeculorum, she’d be better off sending her proposed charter—and the words “secular” and “values”—down the Flueve. Or better, she should recognize that secularism does not mean what she thinks it means: rather, it includes religion.



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