Laïcité: le diable dans les détails

On a beau défendre la laïcité, le diable reste dans les détails. Un entretien de Radio-Canada sur le sujet de la laïcité avec un philosophe français, Henri Peña-Ruiz, est une bonne occasion pour nous le rappeler.

M. Peña-Ruiz soutient que la laïcité n’est pas hostile à la religion. Elle insiste plutôt pour s’assurer que “la religion n’engage que les croyants.” D’où l’importance de la garder séparée de l’État qui, lui, engage tout le monde. La laïcité exige une “stricte égalité” de traitement entre croyants et non-croyants. Donc “pas de privilèges, pas de droits spéciaux,” pas d’ “accomodements avec les religions.” Les traditions historiques ou culturelles, qu’on invoque pour défendre la persistence du religieux dans l’espace public ne sont pas de bonnes justifications. Il faut rompre avec le passé et les inégalités, l’oppression qui l’ont caracrtérisé. La place de la religion est donc dans la sphère privée. Si vous priez dans l’intimité de votre maison ou lieu de culte, c’est votre affaire. La sphère publique, quant à elle, doit être indépendente de la religion, de toute religion, de toutes les religions. Le principe de laïcité pourrait faire consensus si on admettait la stricte égalité de traitement.

Ces idées sont, j’ai l’impression, plutôt populaires non seulement en France, mais aussi au Québec. Or, elles sont, au mieux, simplistes, sinon délibérément trompeuses. À écouter M. Peña-Ruiz, on pourrait être porté à croire que la séparation entre le public/laïc et le privé/religieux-pour-qui-le veut est claire et plutôt simple à réaliser. Il n’en est rien. Le slogan “pas de privilèges, pas de droits spéciaux” n’a de sens que si on s’entend sur le sens des concepts de privilège ou de droit spécial, qui sont, en réalité, sujets à controverse.

Pour exiger la séparation entre le public et le privé afin de cantonner le religieux dans l’espace privé, il faut commencer par se faire une idée de ce qui est public et ce qui est privé. Ce n’est pas si simple, comme le démontre la persistance de certaines controverses bien connues. L’habillement d’un employé de l’État, est-ce public ou privé? Et celui d’un élève d’une école publique? Et ce que cet élève porte sous ses vêtements? Privé, dites-vous? Et si c’est un kirpan? À qui revient de définir le public et le privé? Et selon quels critères? Est-ce l’intention qui compte (le crucifix à l’Assemblée nationale se veut un symbole historique et non religieux; un kirpan, un symbole religieux et non une arme)? Ou est-ce plutôt quelque critère objectif? Mais qui est objectif dans ces débats?

Et que signifie le refus d’octroyer des faveurs aux religions? Quand une règle apparemment neutre a un effet disproportionné sur les adeptes d’une religion particulière (comme les règles sur l’abattage d’animaux ont sur les Juifs et les Musulmans), est-ce favoriser leur religion que de les exempter de son application, ou est-ce plutôt rétablir une égalité que la règle rompt? Ça dépend de notre définition d’égalité, et bien sûr, c’est un sujet d’intenses débats, pas seulement dans le contexte du traitement réservé aux religions. Quand l’État finance les écoles religieuses (qui dispensent aussi les cours requis par le gouvernement) comme il finance, aux mêmes conditions, les écoles privées laïques, favorise-t-il la religion en rendant l’éducation religieuse plus accessible ou ne fait-il que traiter équitablement les groupes privés peu importe leur appartenance religieuse? La encore, on peut donner différentes réponses à la question.

Je pourrais continuer longtemps – mon mémoire de maîtrise porte justement sur la question d’exemptions, et il fait plus de 40 pages à interligne simple. Mais dans ce billet, je veux simplement insister sur le fait que la simplicité des thèses qu’on lance souvent en parlant de laïcité est trompeuse, qu’elle cache beaucoup de questions difficiles, et qu’elle peut servir d’outil rhétorique pour masquer la mauvaise foi trop souvent présente dans ces débats. On peut vouloir sortir Dieu de l’espace public, mais il faut se rendre compte qu’on ne saurait sortir le diable des détails.

The A-Word

Why is it that we cannot have a sane conversation if the word ‘abortion’ comes up? It is a difficult moral issue of course, but so are others, from the death penalty to the balance governments must strike between freedom and equality, or freedom and security. Yet although debate on these issues is often heated, it seldom degenerates so much  as any public discussion about abortion quickly does.

Latest case in point, the debate on the motion presented by Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth to re-open debate about abortion in Parliament, on which the Globe reports here. Mr. Woodworth’s own rhetoric is of the worst you’re-with-us-or-you-like-pedophiles kind; he claims that those who disagree with his view that abortion should be criminalized “see the child as an object and an obstacle, even a parasite.” But his opponents are no better. Both the opposition and the government Whip, Gordon O’Connor, invoke the spectre of back alley abortions, of women having “no choice” and being driven to “desperation” (in the words of former MP and Senator Lucie Pépin, in her appeal to sign a petition created by the Liberal Party.

Much of the petition’s actual wording is a misrepresentation. It claims that “In 1988 the Supreme Court ruled: ‘The decision whether or not to terminate a pregnancy is essentially a moral decision and in a free and democratic society, the conscience of the individual must be paramount to that of the state.'” The reference is obviously to R. v. Morgentaler, [1988] 1 S.C.R. 30. Only, the language quoted does not appear in the decision―it is lifted from the headnote. More importantly, it is a summary of the concurring opinion of Justice Wilson, the only one who probably thought there was a constitutional right to abortion in all circumstances; the two plurality opinions (each supported by two judges) struck down the abortion provisions on narrower grounds, and left the door open to Parliamentary reconsideration.*

But we are told now that even talking about it would lead to horrors that “should never happen in a civilized society” (Mr. O’Connor). Really? Nordic countries are usually thought of as models of social liberalism and gender equality. Yet all of them make abortion illegal at some stage in the pregnancy. (My source is, alas, Wikipedia… I do hope it is reliable on this.) Norway―which imposes a 40% minimum female membership requirement on its corporations’ boards of directors―allows abortion on demand for only 12 weeks, and on application (which is almost always granted) until the 18th week of the pregnancy. In Sweden, abortion on demand is allowed until the 18th week, but only in very exceptional circumstances afterwards. In Denmark, abortion on demand is allowed for 12 weeks. And―though I stand to be corrected―I haven’t heard horror stories of back alley abortions in these countries we often look up to.

Of course this may well be a case where we should not be looking up to them. Perhaps they get it wrong, and the current Canadian state of affairs is right. But how can we know this if we are not allowed to have a conversation that includes the A-word?

* I have written to the LPC about this. I will update if and when I get an answer. UPDATE: I never got one.

Waldron on Bicameralism

The ever brilliant and ever productive Jeremy Waldron has posted three new papers on SSRN this week: one on “The Principle of Loyal Opposition,” one on separation of powers, and one on bicameralism. They all look very interesting, and also very relevant to the current Canadian events. I hope to blog on all of them, but I will start with the one on bicameralism, which of course is most relevant given the Harper government’s interest in Senate Reform.

I encourage you to have a look at the paper itself; I cannot hope to do justice to it in a blog post. In addition to being very intelligent, it is also quite funny. I won’t retell the jokes here, but suffice it to say that it starts off “with some observations about alcohol and sex.” Still, if that’s not incentive enough, here’s a summary of Waldron’s argument. Continue reading “Waldron on Bicameralism”

Legal and Political Questions about Student Protests

Faced with the lengthening strikes and the prospect of losing their semester – and thus having their graduation and their entry on the job market delayed – students at many of Québec’s CÉGEPs and universities have turned to the courts and have been seeking, and obtaining, injunctions forcing the schools to get back to teaching the courses they are registered for. The injunctions tend to prevent the student “strikers” from blocking entry to their schools and otherwise disrupting classes. The injunction obtained by a student in a technical programme at the CÉGEP de Saint-Laurent is, I understand, fairly typical. Other injunctions, aiming directly at student protesters, have been obtained by universities.

The law, explained for example in the CÉGEP de Saint-Laurent decision, is quite clear. Student associations do not have the same status as trade unions. They are not entitled to impose their “strike” votes on their members, as trade unions are. Students contract for education services, and pay, however little. They are entitled to have the classes they contract and pay for. They suffer great prejudice if they lose their semester. The protesters, on the other hand, can still protest if they feel like it, despite the injunctions.

Yet the courts’ stepping in to apply the law and grant these injunctions has produced an outcry, including from lawyers. The argument is that what’s going on is a “judicialization” of a social conflict; that the courts are improperly stepping in to resolve political questions. This is the issue I want to address today. What is the distinction between legal and political questions? And is a wrongful “judicialization” affecting the student protests in Québec? Continue reading “Legal and Political Questions about Student Protests”

A Belated Happy Birthday to the Charter

I wasn’t able to post yesterday, but still want to say something good on the Charter‘s anniversary. My doubts and worries notwithstanding, I believe that the Charter has done Canada a lot of good.

With Lord Acton, I believe that “[l]iberty is not the means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.” And Canada is a freer country today than it would have been had the Charter not been enacted. To be sure, there are aspects of freedom which the Charter does not protect – economic freedom in particular. But in those areas with which it is concerned, it has helped curtail the state’s imposition of its views on citizens, its arbitrariness, its bigotry.  But for the Charter, we might well still have a Lord’s Day Act; we would probably still be extraditing people to face torture or the death penalty; and we would almost surely be convicting and imprisoning people on the basis of arbitrary, brutal, or otherwise disreputable actions of the police or prosecutors.

Pace legislative optimists such as Jeremy Waldron – whom I much admire as an idealist, a scholar, and a teacher – we ought to be realistic in thinking about how best to protect our right and freedoms. In some perfect world, legislatures might do the job. In other, dystopian, worlds, judges will become agents of repression worse than any legislators. But in Canada as we have known it in the last three decades, and as it is likely to be in the decades to come, the Charter and the courts that apply it have been and remain our best hope.

But as we celebrate the Charter, we must recall Pierre Trudeau’s words at its proclamation:

No constitution, no Charter of Rights and Freedoms, no sharing of powers, can be a substitute for the willingness to share the risks and grandeur of sharing the Canadian adventure. Without that collective act of the will our constitution would be a dead letter and our country will wither away. … Let us put our faith first and foremost in the people of Canada who will breathe life  into it.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the courts that have nurtured this breath of life, though not without making serious mistakes along the way; and even more so, to the men and women who have, sometimes at considerable cost to themselves, fought for the recognition of their rights. As the profiles of some of them put together by the Globe show, they have often been perfectly ordinary people; it is a safe bet that without the Charter, none of them would have been able to contribute to the freedom of Canadians in the way they did. In this way, the Charter has lived up to Trudeau’s perhaps paradoxical billing of it as “the people’s package.”

The Charter is good, but more importantly, it is ours. Let’s make it even better.

A Charter Child’s Blues

This was originally written more than three years ago now, but I am fond of the text. I thought I would repost it tomorrow, on the Charter‘s 30th anniversary, but decided to do it today. Hopefully I’ll come up with something more celebratory tomorrow.


I am a proud Charter child. A copy of the Charter is hanging in my room; right above my bed in fact. Every night I fall asleep secure in the knowledge that “the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” You might I’m really taking too far – or even that I’m nuts. You can even tell me this in so many words. That’s fine. “Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression.” But the Charter, according to our Chief Justice, belongs to the people, so it belongs to me too. I’m not the fat old lady, or the gentleman wearing some sort of cross between a Chinese hat and a sombrero, or a kid playing hockey, or any other character gracing my copy of the Charter. But collectively, they all are me. So why is that that I have been having the Charter blues?
Continue reading “A Charter Child’s Blues”

Student Protests and Election Law

Cyberpresse (La Presse’s website) has published my op-ed (en français) on the effects a possible spring election in Québec would have on the student protests against tuition fee hikes. In a nutshell, I argue that, given their explicit opposition to the Liberal government, any expenses the protesters would engage in during an election campaign would count as third-party electoral expenses, and would therefore be illegal under Québec’s extremely restrictive electoral spending legislation, which prohibits third-party expenses in support of or in opposition to a political party or candidate. The law was intended to prevent the rich from capturing the democratic process, but operates to silence not only the rich, but also those who are not well-off.