In a brilliant ad posted last month, Lakeridge Hospital, located in Ontario, made a little something clear: “We don’t care what’s on your head. We care what’s in it.” The accompanying image is a picture of a Muslim woman wearing a pink hijab and a stethoscope.
The ad was not only a clever publicity ploy to recruit new doctors, but also a response to a move by the Parti Quebecois, a political party in Quebec, to set up a “truly” secular government. According to its supporters, the project, termed the “Charter of Values,” is meant to defend the common “Quebec values” of equality between men and women, religious neutrality of state institutions and the recognition of a common heritage.
At first glance, the charter would appear to reduce tension and encourage social cohesion, just as the PQ said it had intended. But to ensure religious neutrality, the proposal would completely ban public workers — including doctors, teachers, police officers and city workers — from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols while performing their duties. This “keep it in your house” proposal fundamentally infringes upon religious freedom, and could potentially exacerbate conflicts among the different religious and ethnic groups that reside in Quebec.
In its attempt to “protect” society “from the influence of religion,” the PQ would prohibit kippas, turbans, hijabs and “large” crosses. But it would allow rings, earrings, “small” crosses or the Star of David to be worn.
Evidently, the application of the same standards for regulating how people of vastly different creeds express their faith will result in some inequality. For certain religious groups, such as Sikhs, the removal of the headwear is not an option. While there are some other symbols associated with Sikhism, none of them is nearly as important as the turban. Implementation of the charter would affect Christians very little, but it might impact the religious identity of Sikhs (and potentially other groups) in a negative and significant manner.
It is also important to note that the alleged intention of the proposal is one thing, but the public’s interpretation of it is a completely different one. Some citizen groups have used the proposed language of the charter to justify despicable statements, overtly contradicting the supposed purpose of the charter to create social unity and reduce tension.
In a pro-charter demonstration held last week, supporters displayed a series of offensive signs, including statements such as “Female beauty is not meant to be hidden,” and “Say no to the Quran in our country, say yes to the charter.” These inflammatory statements have nothing to do with secularism. They are intolerant attempts to reject the values of religious minorities by using the values of the majority as a standard for liberation and equality, with little regard to what those terms imply in other religious contexts.
Furthermore, the equality (between men and women and among cultural groups) for which the PQ is purportedly striving can be achieved through other means other than a ban on religious symbols. Equality easily comes to fruition when individuals have unrestricted job and educational opportunities that can be accessed based on merit and accomplishments.
When we force individuals to make definitive trade-offs between personal liberties and career-advancement opportunities, we actually close avenues for equality. Suddenly, merits only matter as much as the willingness to give up important aspects of personal religious identity.
A simple message that sums it all up: the charter, if implemented, would create an incredibly false sense of social cohesion and harmonious coexistence. If we think about it, this is basically a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Those with severe prejudices would treat religious minorities fairly out of ignorance of the person’s religious affiliation, not out of true respect for the person’s beliefs and values.
The interpretation of the charter by a segment of the majority, along with some arguments used by the PQ, validly raise the question of whether this measure is nothing but a move to “protect” Catholic principles, not just Quebecer secular values.
For now, I would like to assume goodwill on the part of the PQ. However, the measure could merely turn into a mechanism to save highly intolerant individuals the “trouble” of challenging their views and getting informed.
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