Rules Are for Schmucks: Quebec’s Secularism Bill

Quebec is about to implement a new “Secularism bill” that the media can’t stand.

The bill is simple and straightforward: government employees in positions of authority are prevented from imposing their religious views on the public by wearing overtly religious clothing, jewelry, etc. These positions include judges, police officers, prosecutors, prison guards— and teachers, who serve as role models for impressionable students.

The ban covers all religions, including Quebec’s majority Christian population. No more crucifix pendants. No more yarmulkes. No more hijabs. No Satanic Temple t-shirts, should anyone be so inclined. Government employees get paid to do a job for the taxpayers, period. Advertising for the God industry has no place in the doing of that job, any more than advertising for a political candidate would. Employees are free to promote whatever they like on their own time, but not while they are officially representing the government.

When the measure was first proposed, opponents argued that it was hypocritical for the assembly to pass such a law while a large crucifix, which has hung for decades, overlooked its chamber. The leadership of the majority party said, “Fair point. As soon as this law takes effect, that crucifix is coming down, historical or not.”

The enormous cross dominating Montreal’s Mt. Royal Park may well be next to go. Those of us urging the removal of the Bladensburg cross think that’s a terrific idea.

The Quebec law, set to take effect next month, has ample precedent here in the United States. In fact, some thirty-seven states had similar bans for many decades, many originally aimed at the practice of having Catholic nuns in full habit teaching in public schools. One by one, though, these laws have been rolled back, by the fearsome combined power of the God lobby and the teachers’ unions. Only Pennsylvania remains committed to religious neutrality in the classroom, but even that law is under attack.

In Geneva, Switzerland, voters resoundingly approved a similar ban on religious symbols worn by public employees by referendum earlier this year. Berlin, Germany, has banned such items for government employees on the job since 2005.

Quebec is a natural for such a bill. For most of its history, the province was oppressively dominated by the Catholic Church. Paul Blanshard’s famous book, American Freedom and Catholic Power, had a long section documenting the church’s stranglehold on Quebec, especially during the long reign of the corrupt prime minister, Maurice Duplessis. After Duplessis died in 1959, though, Quebecers seemed to look at one another and ask, “Why are we doing this?” Church power disintegrated almost overnight, in a phenomenon now called the “Quiet Revolution.” Only 17 percent of Quebecers now attend religious services at least once a month. Though Catholic nuns vanished from Quebec’s public schools and hospitals without the need for a change in the law, the new statute will help prevent a return to the bad old days.

Despite the fact that Quebec’s voters overwhelmingly support the so-called new Secularism bill, there are screams of outrage from the God lobby and the public employee unions, who seek maximum power and benefits for their members regardless of any other consideration. Their PR mavens have singled out for crocodile tears the small subgroup most likely to attract sympathy in today’s environment: Muslim women teachers, who either for personal reasons or because of family and community pressure wear a hijab to cover the head, or perhaps a niqab to cover the entire face. Despite the fact that the new law is completely even-handed, these organizers moan that it’s discriminatory, because it inhibits their dues-paying members from expressing whatever they want to express, whenever they want to express it. Some are even threatening civil disobedience, because the laws of God should apparently trump those of mere humans.

What should matter most here is not what the employees want, but what the “customers” want—given the customers are children whose minds are being shaped by those in authority. David Rand, president of the Quebec’s Atheist Free Thinkers, points out that children are “much more easily influenced” than adults, and wearing religious apparel amounts to “passive proselytizing.”  “Why do you think companies purchase advertising to display their products on billboards or buses or television?” he asks. “Because it works, because it helps promote their products.” Rand is a strong supporter of the Secularism bill and would like to see it go even further than it already does.

Quebec’s premier, Francois Legault, insists that “We have to think about what’s best for our children.” Children deserve to be educated in a neutral environment. They don’t need teachers putting up signs saying “Jesus is the Answer”—or wearing clothing that says the same thing. They don’t need teachers wearing a cap boasting that “I’m one of God’s chosen people, and you’re not.” They don’t need teachers silently communicating that women should be ashamed of their bodies—or the equally disgusting message that men are incapable of controlling themselves if they are sexually distracted by seeing the top of a woman’s head. What they need, in David Rand’s words, is “a space of freedom in which no one’s ideology is on display.”