Can’t Work

The most serious argument I have seen a representative of the Québec government invoke in defence of its proposed “Charter of Values” is Bernard Drainville’s claim, in an interview to the Globe, that “[w]orking for the state is not a right, it is a choice that comes with certain responsibilities.” The argument is that since the proposed Charter would only apply to state employees, and working for the state is not a right, it would not infringe anyone’s rights ― it would only condition access to something of a privilege. Of course, being most serious argument in a heap of lies and lunacy need not mean much, but it is, I think, serious enough to deserve an answer. Nevertheless, the argument cannot work.

One obvious response to it is to invoke an anti-discrimination logic. Even if something is a matter of privilege or of discretion rather than of right, it cannot be granted on a discriminatory basis. Mr. Drainville would surely accept that a law that, say, excluded Jews from the civil service would be discriminatory and wrong, even though, as a general matter, no individual, Jewish or otherwise, has a right to be a civil servant. It is one thing to say that an individual does not have an entitlement to something that can only be obtained as a result of a competitive process (in this case, recruitment); it is quite another to exclude all members entire groups from even participating in the competition. And because the Charter of Québec values, as proposed, has a largely disparate impact on different religious groups, imposing basically no hardship on Christians or the non-religious, but a lot of hardship on the members of some religious minorities, it is discriminatory unless these restrictions can be justified on some independent basis, and not merely by saying that working for the state is not a right. (On the operation of anti-discrimination law in this context, I recommend this post by my erstwhile Federal Court colleague, and now labour and employment lawyer, Brian Gottheil.)

Mr. Drainville’s argument also fails on the logic of religious liberty and accommodation, although the reasoning here is a bit more complicated. Mr. Drainville’s position is a special case of the general principle that the case for solicitude towards a religious behaviour which clashes with some general rule is rather less strong if the clash can be avoided ― avoided, that is, not by the believer renouncing his or her religiously-motivated behaviour, but by adjusting his or her secular conduct so that the clash will not arise. To make this abstract formulation clear, consider the following examples: (1) a Sikh who wants to wear a kirpan to school, despite a general rule prohibiting dangerous objects in the school; (2) a Sikh who wants to wear a kirpan to attend a session of Parliament, despite a rule prohibiting dangerous objects in the parliamentary buildings; and (3) a Sikh who wants to wear a turban while driving a motorcycle, making it impossible for him to wear a helmet, despite a rule that makes helmets mandatory. I think that the argument for exemption in case (1) is extremely strong, because school attendance is mandatory, so that the believer has no way out of the conflict with the general rule. In case (3), by contrast, the argument for exemption is not all that strong, because riding a motorcycle is a purely optional behaviour, something done out of pleasure rather than necessity. The believer can drive a car instead, and get around without any interference with his religious duty. (Of course, we might say that the helmet requirement is a paternalist regulation and the case for it is very weak too, tipping the balance in favour of granting the exemption, but that’s a somewhat different argument.) Case (2) is, arguably, somewhere in the middle. Attending a session of Parliament is not mandatory; most people get on just fine without ever doing it. However, it is, I think, a matter of right in a democracy, and citizens should not be deprived of it without very grave reasons indeed. In my view, the case for the exemption is quite strong here, though not as strong as in (1).

So where does working for the state fall on this scale? Mr. Drainville says that being a civil servant is like riding a motorcycle (except, I guess, that it is less dangerous and exciting) ― a purely optional behaviour; if one doesn’t like the conditions that come with it, one just shouldn’t do it. But that is not quite so, especially in the context of 21st-century Québec (or indeed, albeit perhaps to a somewhat lesser extent, any advanced society). The public sector employs a sizable part of the total workforce. But, more to the point, in some professions, it is the dominant, if not the only, employer. If one is a schoolteacher, one is likely to be working in a public institution (though there are, to be sure, some private schools). If one is a doctor, one has to pass through a period of public employment as a resident; in some areas (say, emergency medicine), state hospitals are the only potential employer. Cooks and janitors, who the PQ also considers to be bearers of state authority whose appearance needs to be secularized, could potentially leave public employment and take up similar, if less well-paying, jobs in the private sector. But for many professionals, that is simply not an option. For them working for the state is not a right (the state could, after all, privatize some of its activities, or simply fire them to save costs), but it’s not exactly a choice either. The case for accommodating their religious duties is much stronger than it is for the motorcycle-rider.

Of course, there are always alternatives. If a professional cannot work in Québec, chances are he or she will find a job in some other province. A hospital in Ontario is already advertising to McGill’s medical students, saying that (unlike Québec), “we don’t care what’s on your head. We care what’s in it.” But we might still hope that Mr. Drainville did not mean to say, like the officials of the Russian Empire, in the wake of late 19th-century Jewish pogroms, that “the western border is open to you.” Or did he?

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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