Friday, September 13, 2013

On religious accommodation


Here's this week's OpEd from the Kingston Whig-Standard.

Quebec has done it again. Right after introducing legislation that effectively would permit assisted dying in the province, Quebec’s government is proposing a Charter of Quebec values. True to French form, these values are secular values.
The most controversial policy proposed is that public servants would be prohibited from wearing religious symbols conspicuously while on the job. I will get back to that “conspicuous” in a moment. Opinion polls suggest that this policy – just as the assisted dying legislation - has majority support both among the Quebecers but also among the wider Canadian public.
My liberal-minded fellow academics across Canada have issued condemnatory declarations, the loudest opposition coming from academics writing in French from Quebec. It seems it is all about accommodating the expression of religious views in the workplace. Being an atheist, I thought about staying clear of this debate lest I lose valuable friends in the academy. My gut feeling was, “They had it coming for a long time, these religious fanatics,” and “Why should they be permitted to confront me with their religious beliefs while I am trying to get professional services out of them?”
After all, most of those affected by the proposed policies would be followers of monotheistic ideologies. It is not unfair to suggest that the ideologies they are adhering to have oppressed most of humanity for much of our history. They have dictated to us what we can and cannot do in the privacy of our homes and they have used their political influence to dictate to governments what they can and cannot do. This is why it took such a long time to achieve reproductive rights for women, marriage equality, and that is why we are still bothering about assisted dying, among other policy issues
But other than me liking the feeling of finally being able to finally stick it to these ideologies, I cannot help but wonder whether the proposed policy is actually defensible in a liberal democracy. Are we any better today in our treatment of them, than they were in their treatment of us? My honest impression is that there are good arguments on both sides of the political divide.
The issue, of course, should not be about religious symbols. It is a non-starter. Why should my red “A” badge, as in “A” for Atheist, not be covered by this prohibition? Or the local devil worshippers’ symbol? What about folks wearing trade union paraphernalia? A cross possibly tattooed on an employee’s arm would have to be covered, no matter how hot it is in the office? Surely the issue should be exclusively about a public-sector employee doing his or her job professionally, not about the cloth on his or her head, right? If I receive professional services from religious employees, why should it matter what religious symbols they wear?
Well, a possible answer to this could be that we often end up talking to these employees as the weaker participant in the conversation. More often than not the public-sector employee is in a position of relative power compared to us. Is it really necessary for that person to be also permitted to wear religious accoutrements that tells me that they likely think I’m going to rot in hell anyway, because I am an atheist, or because I belong to a competing religion with its own invisible friend in the sky?
Looking at it from the standpoint of an impartial observer, I come to see these employees in their professional capacity. I don’t even have much of a choice, because unlike with private businesses, I cannot avoid public-sector employees due to the role they occupy. It is not clear why they should be permitted to drag their private ideas about the universe into our professional interaction.
Typically they hold ideas that may have been reasonable around the 14th century, but that does not hold quite true any longer in the 21st century. So, while they clearly are entitled to hold these views in their private lives, it is unclear indeed what powerful reasons there are for permitting them to drag those views into our professional interactions.
Powerful reasons: How about this one? Religion forms, for many people, part of their identity. Incidentally, the same holds true for other ideological commitments for other people. These ideological commitments could require of them to wear particular outfits. Is it not unreasonable to expect them not to wear that dress simply because they have to interact with folks not sharing their ideological commitments?
As a society enforcing such strictures, would we be any better than the totalitarian monotheistic religions that we successfully fought over time? I think not. At the end of the day, as a society we should not force citizens working for the state to check their convictions at the entrance to their office, provided they do their jobs impartially and professionally.
If they refuse to do the job they were hired to do because of their ideological commitments, we should fire them. No ifs, no buts. However, if they do their job as they promised to do when they were hired, surely their preference for particular cloth covering their hair, or a cross around their neck, should not disqualify them from becoming public servants.
Now, of course, the Parti Quebecois is what it is: is a divisive party with a separatist agenda. Both the end-of-life legislation as well as the Quebec charter proposal are driven, to some extent, by their need to separate Quebec culturally from the rest of Canada.
It is worth noting that both policies seem to have majority support. Assisted dying is overwhelmingly supported by Quebecers, the Quebec values charter commands barely majority support, but it does command majority support.
The PQ is, not unexpectedly, hypocritical in its proposed execution of the secular policies. It turns out inconspicuous religious symbols may be worn. So, if you’re a Christian wearing a smaller cross around your neck and you would be fine. This option is not available to Muslim women or to Sikhs, for instance. For lack of a better word, their headgear cannot be replaced by some miniature version.
Funny coincidence, is it not? That this proposed legislation is driven by rank hypocrisy is best shown by the exclusions the PQ has in mind. The crosses hanging in the National Assembly and elsewhere are there to stay, supposedly for historical reasons. This is complete nonsense, obviously. Why should history provide any stronger ethical reason for keeping massive religious symbols in the public domain than the fundamental needs of Quebecers whose religious identity commands them to wear particular religious garb, even to work?
The only reason to prevent a public-sector – or other – employee from wearing religious garb in the workplace would be that it would prevent them from discharging their work obligations professionally. If that is not the case, I can see no good reason for the prohibition. Any government seriously concerned about the separation of state and church should take a serious look at public funding for religious schools and hospitals, as well as the myriad tax exemptions heaped upon religious organisations as opposed to targeting citizens wearing religious paraphernalia at work.
Udo Schuklenk works at Queen’s. His new book, 50 Great Myths About Atheism (Wiley 2013), is out this month. He tweets @schuklenk

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