The Fantasy of State Neutrality

This is a translation of my op-ed that that was published yesterday on the website of La Presse.

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The Parti Québécois proposes, if it wins the elections, to enact a « Charte de la laïcité » (Charter of secularism) for Québec. This charter would, among other things, prohibit civil servants from  wearing “ostentatious religious symbols.” This prohibition would, to be sure, be motivated by a noble principle, the neutrality of the state. But it is not the right means to realise this principle, and is discriminatory.

Let us grant, first, that the state has a duty of neutrality; that is, it may not grant privileges or favours to a group of its citizens that it does grant to others.

Let us grant, too, that this duty of neutrality applies not only to the contents of legislation but also to its administration. This means that civil servants and other state agents, entrusted with the application of laws, must act impartially, without favouring one citizen over another, including on the basis of his or her belonging to any group, whether religious, ethnic, or other.

Let us grant, finally, that the administration of the law must not only be neutral but also appear to be neutral. It is not enough for a civil servant’s decision to actually be neutral. It is also necessary that a citizen, at least a well-informed and objective citizen, have no reason to doubt the decision’s neutrality.

The prohibition of ostentatious religious symbols would aim at ensuring the appearance of civil servants’ neutrality. At work, at the moment of applying the law, civil servants represent the state rather than the religious groups to which they belong in private life. If they are allowed to identify with members of particular religious groups, do they not risk favouring their co-religionists? Do they not, above all, risk provoking, among the citizens they serve, a reasonable apprehension of bias?

No. The worry that, for example, a civil servant wearing the headscarf will fail to discharge her duty of neutrality is neither objective nor reasonable. The idea that the physical appearance of civil servants must be neutralized in order that they may exercise their functions impartially belongs to the realm of fantasy or hypocrisy. A person’s physical appearance usually reveals his or her belonging to all manner of groups: to a gender, to a race, to a certain age group. We would not think of imposing the burqa as the uniform for civil servants (male as well as female of course) in order to avoid letting citizens know whether they are served by a man or a woman, a White or a Black, a youth or an old person.

We know that the civil servant, the police officer, the judge whom we face belongs to one or many such groups. Yet we ought, as citizens, expect them to act in good faith and with neutrality.

Religious belonging is not different from other forms. It is, sometimes, easily identifiable. But it is no more reasonable to doubt the impartiality of a civil servant who wears a headscarf for the sole reason that she is Muslim than it would be to doubt her impartiality because she is a woman. Prohibiting civil servants from wearing religious symbols is irrational.

It is also discriminatory. Not only does it discriminate between religions, since some religions – including that of the majority of Quebeckers – do not require believers to wear religious symbols of the sort that is now sought to be banned. It also discriminates between members of the same religious group, in the case of religions, such as Islam and Judaism, which impose the wearing of ostentatious religious symbols on one gender but not the other. Thus a prohibition proposed out of a concern for neutrality and equality between men and women would prevent Muslim women, but not Muslim men, from serving the Québec state.

The ban on ostentatious religious symbols in the civil service would be irrational and unjust. It would be a simplistic measure, favouring appearances at the detriment of a real equality and a true concern for living together.

The Good of Religion

Yesterday I attended a discussion with Robert P. George, the Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton (which of course does not have a law school!) and one of the leading religious conservative public intellectuals in the United States. The topic was “Religious Liberty and the Human Good.” David Blankenhorn – perhaps best known recently as a failed would-be expert in the trial on the constitutionality of Proposition 8, which attempted to change California’s constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage – was the host. He is clearly smarting from the Prop 8 experience, and took some shots at President Obama along the way, but it was quite interesting nonetheless, so here’s a recap.

According to prof. George, freedom of religion is valuable for two reasons.

The less important one is that it allows the existence of organizations that provide all sorts of important social services and are authority structures that act as a buffer between the state and the individual, so that the state does not become the only source of authority. Religious organizations help prevent tyranny, which the judiciary alone is not able to do. For my part, I do not find this persuasive. There are many alternative power centres (the press and NGOs for example) and networks (online social networks for example). Religious structures are, at most, some of many, and perhaps not the best candidates as oppression-resisters (the Catholic church, for example, has a long record of collaboration with temporal powers, as well as one of resistance to them). And of course religious structures can be oppressive in their own right – though they need not be.

The more important reason why freedom of religion is important is that it serves what prof. George called “the good of religion” – that is the human ability to ask, and answer for oneself, fundamental questions about human nature, life, mortality, free will, etc. A life spent without thinking about these questions is impoverished; and it is important to have one’s own answers to them, and to live with integrity in light of the answers one comes up with. Even if these answers are not “religious” as the term is usually understood – even if they are atheistic for instance – they are worthy of protection, because it is the questioning that constitutes “the good of religion.” That seems exactly right to me, whether or not “the good of religion” is the best name for what prof. George is getting at.

A related term (which I might be more inclined to use instead) is “conscience”. Prof. George defines it as “one’s last best judgment informed by reason, belief, or faith as to what one is required to do or not to do.” Referring to Cardinal Newman’s take on the subject, he insists that it is not “in the business of permissions.”

Mr. Blakenhorn brought up the subject of “reason” in religious belief. He is mad at Judge Vaughn Walker, who presided over the trial in the Prop. 8 case, Perry v. Schwarzenegger, for finding that religious motivation could not constitute a “rational basis” for prohibiting same-sex marriage.  Prof. George agrees that religion has an element of reason – we can understand someone acting on his answers to “ultimate questions,” for instance – and argues that Judge Walker has an impoverished, “fideistic” view of religion as consisting only of faith, without a rational element. But it seems to me that the important question here, which he did not get into at all, is whether religious reason can count as a valid one for public law purposes. Even if we agree – as I do – that a person acting on religious (or conscientious) beliefs is not acting irrationally, it is a different matter whether the state (and thus voters) are entitled to act on such reasons – and still a different matter whether they are entitled to act on such reasons only – in making public policy. This is the Rawlsian public reason conundrum, which I cannot possibly get into here (and don’t have firm views about anyway).

Finally, prof. George spoke about religious exemptions – cases where a law that is generally not meant to punish or impede religious belief or practice has that effect on some believers. He thinks that these believers should be exempted from the application of such laws, unless the state can show that not granting the exemption is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling state objective. There is, however, an interesting question about who – courts or legislatures – should be deciding whether any given case comes satisfies these criteria. That is roughly what I argued in my LL.M. thesis, which was about religious exemptions, so I am glad to have my thoughts confirmed. Now why don’t the law reviews to which I submitted the paper seem interested to publish it?

Religion in School 101

U of T professor Ed Morgan has an excellent op-ed in the Globe on the topic of the place of religion in Canadian public schools, which reviews the relevant case law.

Schools, he explains, cannot themselves endorse religious beliefs qua beliefs (though they can teach about them as facts): “A state agency simply cannot tacitly endorse denominational prayer, especially in a school environment.” The key reference on this point (which he does not name, according to the conventions of the op-ed genre) is Zylberberg v. Sudbury Board of Education.

However, schools may not censor the expression of religious beliefs by their students, as happened recently in a Nova Scotia case about which I blogged here, short of the expression in question becoming hate speech. That expression of belief in one set of religious canons is often (perhaps always) also the expression, implicit or explicit, of belief that (all or most) other sets of religious canons is wrong does not make it hate speech.

Prof. Morgan concludes:

In short, Canadian law generally restricts school authorities from promoting religion, even passively by holding voluntary classes and prayers. It generally does not restrict students from promoting religion, even actively by wearing it on their sleeve or chest. That’s a lesson school boards and principals need to study.

Indeed.

UPDATE: There are two qualifications to be made to prof. Morgan’s exposé.

First, religious speech in schools, at least by teachers (and indeed religious speech by teachers outside schools), can be curtailed not only when it becomes criminal hate speech, as defined by the Supreme Court in R. v. Keegstra, a case prof. Morgan quotes, but also when at amounts to discrimination in human rights law sense. Speech that creates “a ‘poisoned’ environment within the school system” can amount to discrimination, as the Supreme Court held in Ross v. New Brunswick School District No. 15, to which prof. Morgan also refers. Although the case is about teachers, and they can surely be held to higher standards than students, it seems reasonable to believe that school authorities have the power, and indeed the duty under human rights law, to prevent the school from becoming a “poisoned environment” as a result of students’, and not just teachers’, speech. However, prof. Morgan is right to argue that this is still a demanding standard, and mere expression of religious belief, even fervent expression, does not meet it.

And second, the Constitution Act, 1867, protects those public religious schools that existed at its entry into force. Indeed, it obliged Ontario and Québec to maintain, respectively, public Catholic and Protestant schools. The requirement is no longer in force as to Québec, following a constitutional amendment in 1997. This is an anachronism today, but in 1867, it was an essential guarantee, without which Confederation might not have happened.

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.