Quebec becoming a sacrilegious state?

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Pontiac Perspective Peter J. Gauthier


Pontiac Perspective Peter J. Gauthier

The Quebec government has proposed changes to its Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms to ensure the religious neutrality of the state. It would limit the wearing of religious symbols by all persons in government positions. This limitation would include employees of hospitals, schools, and municipalities as well as the Quebec civil service. This proposed amendment has generated much controversy and discussion. To evaluate the different perspectives in this discussion, it is reasonable to search for an understanding of what a religious symbol is. Some examples may help.
Some religious sects require that its adult male members wear a beard. Will the new charter require that male public servants remove their beards because, for some, the beard is a religious symbol? Or will there be a test to determine which males are wearing a beard for religious purposes and which ones are wearing a beard for other purposes?
There could also be some confusion regarding the meaning of a particular piece worn as an ornament. Several years ago a friend purchased an intricately crafted broach of Celtic design, which included a Celtic cross. Now, the broach was worn simply for its beauty and craftsmanship. However, some people considered it a religious symbol. In fact, a follower of the Wicca religion considered the broach a sacred object, while a Christian felt that, as a pagan symbol, it was blasphemous. So, is the broach a religious symbol?
Another example concerned two horticulturalists attending a public information session on the local flora. Both were wearing medallions that contained figurines. The first explained that the figure on her medallion was that of the Roman goddess Flora. The second stated the figure on her medallion was Saint Fiacre, the patron saint of horticulture. Which of the two horticulturalists was displaying a religious symbol? Or, consider a person sporting a large button displaying a heart. Is the person supporting the Heart and Stroke Foundation, indicating membership in the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, or, maybe, just expressing a joy in life in general?
These are but a few examples of the problems with identifying religious symbols. If the Quebec government truly wants to define a secular state and yet maintain the right of each person to practice their chosen religion, it must address, in clear legal terms, what constitutes a religious symbol that cannot be displayed by a civil servant or other affected worker. Such a definition would be most helpful in the debate about values in Quebec society. Without such a definition, legislation aimed at limiting the display of religious symbols will only result in endless, costly court challenges that will add to the tensions and divisions that the legislation is supposed to mitigate.