The essay below first appeared in the August edition of the Centre for Inquiry Canada's newsletter, Critical Links.
Secularism can be defined in several ways. The definition that I subscribe to (along with the Canadian Secular Alliance and the Centre for Inquiry Canada) is government neutrality in matters of religion, whereby the government neither supports nor suppresses religious expression for its citizens.
Quebec's functional definition of secularism seems to be removing all religious symbolism from the public square. It recently passed Bill 21, which forbids new government employees (including civil servants and teachers) from displaying any religious paraphernalia on the job, including crucifixes, turbans, yarmulkes, and hijabs.
The Quebec government was clearly concerned this almost certainly violated section 2 a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (guaranteeing religious freedom), because it preemptively invoked the Charter's section 33 (commonly referred to as the "notwithstanding clause"), shielding the legislation from most legal challenges.
Therefore I was interested to read an op-ed piece in the Globe and Mail on July 11 entitled, "Religious expression is under attack in Canada – and not just in Quebec". I was unaware of other attacks on religious expression, and wanted to see how Canada was violating secular principles elsewhere in the country.
It turns out the piece is half precisely right, and half entirely wrong.
I agree entirely with the sentiment in the first part of the essay: It is worrying that Quebec behaves as though "Even the most benign expressions of religious conviction must be kept out of the public service, and accommodation will only be afforded to employees who are non-religious or who agree to give that appearance. This should alarm believers and non-believers alike, regardless of whether they are directly affected by this law."
But from this solid foundation, the article quickly loses its way. It makes sweeping claims, such as Canadians increasingly believe "religion should not be accommodated if it makes others feel uncomfortable" and "decision-makers are increasingly upholding religious-rights violations with little, if any, discussion of the important interests protected by religious freedom", that are wholly unsupported by the remainder of the piece.
The article cites only two examples of how religious expression in Canada is under attack beyond Bill 21. Both cases are presented in misleading manner. They involve not a suppression of religious expression, but the protection of rights from religious discrimination. The difference is crucial.
The authors decry the Supreme Court's decision on Trinity Western University's(TWU) proposed law school, describing it as having "denied graduates of Trinity Western University’s proposed law school equal admission to the practice of law based on the university’s faith-based code of conduct". I have written extensively on the TWU decision; in essence, the Supreme Court ruled that freedom of religion does not grant to right to discriminate against others. TWU demanded from all students that sexual intimacy be restricted to between a married man and woman; homosexuals (married or not) are welcome, but must commit to celibacy while a student at TWU. Violators are subject to academic discipline up to and including expulsion. Blatant discrimination against the LGBT community is not moral or acceptable solely because some interpretations of scripture attempt to justify it.
The other case is that Ontario physicians "can be forced to help facilitate procedures that violate their ethical judgment" and "religious convictions". The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario created a policy whereby a medical practitioner cannot prevent a patient from seeking an assisted death, in accordance with Canadian law. Individual physicians may recuse themselves, but "must not impede access to medical assistance in dying, even if it conflicts with their conscience or religious beliefs." They must provide an "effective referral". Again, this is not an attack on the faithful; it is protecting the rights of Canadians from those who seek to deprive patients of medical procedures to which they are entitled.
Religious freedom allows for the maximum autonomy for individual religious expression, subject to reasonable limits in a free and democratic society; it does not include a protected right to coerce others to behave according to the tenets of a particular faith. Quebec's Bill 21 is a travesty that is justifiably opposed by almost all religious and civil rights organizations, including the Centre for Inquiry Canada and the Canadian Secular Alliance; if religious expression is under attack elsewhere in Canada, Mr. Ross and Mr. Kinsinger have failed to provide a single legitimate example.