OK, I get it. With its proposed values charter, Quebec is attempting to create a neutral public space where all individuals are treated as equals.
And for many reasons, that’s a noble goal. The Quebec government doesn’t want to be seen as favouring one religion over another. And they want to maintain that the truth or validity of any one religion should be evaluated on the merit of a religion’s claims, not on its ability to politically pressure or coerce people into accepting its claims.
But, I would argue, by restricting government employees to adorn any prominent religious symbol, like a hijab or a turban or a yarmulke, the government in Quebec will actually increase the inequality present in public spaces.
By implementing the values charter, a public space will be created where anything with particular value — in this case anything of particular religious value — will be deemed unequal to anything with universal value. The result? If the public identity of any individual is shaped or adorned by a religious symbol, that person will be pushed out of the neutral public place.
But isn’t the idea of a neutral public space a myth? Aren’t all public spaces based on particular values or pre-suppositions? It’s true, Quebec’s proposed charter of values is certainly based on non-neutral presuppositions — many of them religious presuppositions, by the way — which means that even if religious symbols were removed from the public space, that space will still be far from neutral.
This point has been made elsewhere, so I won’t pursue it further. But the question that lingers is: what are we going to do about it? What happens if the majority in a democratic society chooses to restrict the rights of a minority? Sixty-six per cent of Quebecers report they’re in favour of the proposed charter. Do we just stand by and let that happen? Or do we actively oppose it?
The answer, unfortunately, is not so simple. The paradox of democracy is that the majority will always have the ability to act disfavourably toward the minority. Thankfully, most democratic societies have checks and balances in place to protect the interests of the minority — and it seems like these checks and balances may be put in motion if need be — but there is always the danger that the minority will be forced to sacrifice its values for the sake of the majority. Sometimes this can be a good or even a necessary thing. But it can never be a neutral thing.
Quebec’s pursuit of a government devoid of any religious influence is more than just ironic. It’s incoherent. In the same way that we don’t want other countries to ostracize individuals for their religious beliefs, we shouldn’t want it in our own.