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Accommodating religious difference

29 November 2018 By Bruce J. Clemenger

Accommodating religious difference

The newly elected government of Quebec promises to impose "strict secularism" by forbidding judges, police officers, teachers and other public employees in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols.

No legislation has yet been tabled, but the government has floated an exemption for current employees, meaning the ban might only be applied to new hires.

The ban will forbid kippahs, turbans, head scarves and niqabs. Whether it will include crosses is unclear – a previous government’s proposal would only have banned large crosses. The crucifix that hangs behind the speaker’s chair in the legislature will remain, according to a government spokesperson, since it is part of Quebec’s heritage.

Is the cross jewelry or a religious symbol? While it is religious for some, does everyone who wears a cross intend to express a faith commitment? Or consider the head scarf. For some it is an expression of their faith and requirements of modesty, while not so for others.

Will items that are religious symbols for some be banned for all?

Evangelicals and most other Christians are not required to wear religious symbols or distinctive clothing (except for traditions that require women to wear heads coverings in public).

Yes, some Christians do wear crosses as a personal expression of their faith, but they’re not a requirement. And some clergy wear vestments, mainly when carrying out religious functions. Otherwise Christians wear much the same clothing as our neighbours, whether they are spiritual, agnostic, pagan or atheist.

This does not mean Christian faith has nothing to say about clothing choices, merely that Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, the two Christian traditions that have influenced Canadian culture the most, do not require lay people to wear symbols. They do, however, affirm that a person’s faith will shape their public engagement.

The Quebec government is now making the practice of not wearing of religious symbols, which is consistent with Christian practice, mandatory for certain jobs because it manifests their understanding of the place of religion in a secular society. Would they do so if it was also contrary to Christian practice?

Imagine yourself in a society where religious garb is normal and expected. How would you look on someone who wears no religious adornment? Instead of seeing them as neutral, wouldn’t you wonder what religion they adhere to?

Of course, just because some of us don’t wear religious symbols or distinctive clothing doesn’t mean we are secularist. It only means our faith has no particular dress requirement.

The key point is that a ban on religious symbols is not religiously neutral. It impacts people whose religion requires symbols as well as people who wear such symbols as a personal statement (whether they consider it just free expression or also religious expression).

Consider the similar issue of banning prayers at government sponsored events. A few years ago, the Supreme Court advised abstinence, or no prayer, and argued that was the neutral approach.

But no prayer is not neutral, it sides with those who do not want prayer. There are other ways to accommodate diversity while respecting differences.

Forced secularism, as Quebec’s government is proposing, is not neutral, fair nor even-handed. It pretends that when religion is out of sight, it is out of mind. It presumes one’s religious convictions are, or should be, strictly private and that a plural and open society must shun religious expression – rather than respect and accommodate it.

It takes a side in the debate about the nature of religion. It is itself one of the competing views seeking to impose itself on others.

A truly public service is to serve all, and functions best when it reflects the public it serves. Likewise, a truly public school should reflect and accommodate the diversity in the community it serves, and itself reflect and respect that diversity.

Banning religious symbols from public sector jobs will not make those working in the public sector less religious, and it will not make those impacted better public servants. It will only limit the jobs to those whose faith does not require them to wear symbols.

Religion involves the whole person expressed in beliefs, doctrines, rites, rituals and ways of living. Each of us lives out those things, whether we can articulate them and confess them or not.

All people, even atheists and agnostics, are religious in that sense. Even if we don’t serve the God of the Bible, Scripture tells us we are still going to serve another. There is no neutral ground. This is where the public discussion of accommodation properly begins.

bruce j. clemenger

Bruce J. Clemenger is President of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. Please pray for our work and support us at or toll-free 1-866-302-3362.

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