The Puzzle of Neutrality

While we are waiting for the conclusion of the greatest show on earth, a.k.a. as the Supreme Court’s hearings on the Senate reference, here are a couple of thoughts on an unrelated matter ― the case in which the Court has been asked to consider the validity under the Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms of Saguenay’s practice of opening its town council meetings with a prayer. The Québec Court of Appeal, in Saguenay (Ville de) c. Mouvement Laïque Québécois, 2013 QCCA 936, found that the prayer was not a violation of the complainants’ freedom of religion because it was not religious , and the complainants  have asked the Supreme Court for leave to appeal. In this post, I want to make a suggestion as to what the Supreme Court, should it grant leave, should consider in deciding the matter, and what it should not.

I have very harshly criticized the decision of the Québec Court of Appeal here, arguing that it was bad law and worse logic. Of course a prayer is religious, and so involves the state’s duty of neutrality in religious matters. The real question in this case is not whether we should, as the Court of Appeal, blind ourselves to that fact, but rather how far the duty of neutrality extends.

One example for the Supreme Court (as well as for all of us who think of these issues) to consider is the long-standing (I suppose) and uncontroversial (for all I know) practice of prayer at Remembrance Day ceremonies. At the ceremony in Ottawa (which, being out of the country and unable to attend one, I watched thanks to CBC’s live stream, for which I am very grateful), the prayer  is led by the Chaplain General of the Canadian Forces. It is an integral part of the ceremony. The prayer is certainly deistic and, arguably, noticeably though not overtly Christian (it appeals repeatedly to the “God of Mercy” and “God of Grace”, which I think are Christian concepts). 

And so here are some questions to ponder. Is this prayer a violation of the state’s duty of neutrality and/or of the citizens’ religious freedom? If yes, are courts really prepared to interfere with this practice? If this prayer does not violate the state’s neutrality, what, if anything, makes a town council prayer, or the prayer as it is implemented in Saguenay different? Does it matter that Saguenay’s the prayer is led by the mayor? (Put differently, would the answer for the Remembrance Day prayer be different if it were led by the Governor General?) Does it matter that the Remembrance Day ceremony is just that ― a ceremony, a merely symbolic event, however much importance some of us attach to it ― whereas town council meetings are not symbolic gatherings, and serve to make public decisions and enact public rules? Does the history of prayer at such events matter at all? (The Saguenay practice, it seems, is actually a recent one, although similar prayers have long existed in other assemblies in Canada.) For what little it’s worth, my intuition is that the town council prayer is rather more disturbing than the Remembrance Day one. But it’s not so easy to articulate just why that is ― which of course suggests that my intuition may well be wrong.

One place which, unfortunately, is unlikely to be of much help in thinking about these difficult questions is the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in Town of Greece v. Galloway, a case which also considers the constitutionality of prayer before a town council meeting. I was more optimistic when I first wrote about the coincidence of the two Supreme Courts considering this issue at the same time, but ― having just attended a lecture on Town of Greece at NYU ― I now have the impression that the differences of constitutional text and precedent between the US and Canada are, in this area, so important as to make reliance on American decisions quite unhelpful. Precedent, in the US, the case of  Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983), which upheld legislative prayer on the basis that it was a long-standing tradition that predated and was continued after the ratification of the Bill of Rights. That case, as Lyle Denniston writes, not only looms large over Town of Greece, but might indeed be the only ground on which a majority could agree to decide it. Yet its originalist logic has long been rejected by the Supreme Court of Canada, at least in cases about rights. Beyond precedent (and the peculiarities of the American constitutional text, which guarantees not a general “freedom of religion” like the Charter and other modern constitutions, but “free exercise” and non-establishment of religion), the parties’ positions are also very different. The plaintiffs in Town of Greece actually accept the permissibility of non-sectarian prayers, of the sort which are provided for by Saguenay’s policy, and indeed apparently take the position that the US Constitution simply does not protect atheists. Although, according to Mr. Denniston’s report, at least some judges seem ill at ease with that position, it probably means that the decision the Court will eventually deliver will respond to concerns quite different from those raised by the Saguenay case.

I hope that, unlike the Québec Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court ― as well as all of us thinking about this case ― will approach the American jurisprudence with caution. All the more important, then, to think carefully for ourselves about the very difficult questions about the extent of state neutrality in matters of religion, including those I have outlined above.

Bad Poetry

“A statute is written to entrap meaning, a poem to escape it.” So writes Hillary Mantel in Bring Up the Bodies. That’s true ― normally. But some statutes are in fact written to escape meaning rather than to capture it. They are usually bad statutes, and often bad poetry. What was first mooted as the Charter of Secularism, then became the Charter of Québec Values, and has now become Bill no. 60: Charter affirming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality and equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests ― which, following André Pratte, I will from now on refer to, for brevity and clarity’s sake, as the Charter of Shame ― is a case in point.

I have criticized the Charter of Shame repeatedly (my posts on its various versions are collected here), arguing that it was unjust, illiberal, discriminatory, and indeed reminiscent of some (early) Nazi laws. All of these criticisms remain in force. The bill that Bernard Drainville finally presented yesterday differs only in minor ways from the proposals made public a couple of months ago. But having the text of the bill (a pdf document is available here) makes it possible to examine not only the substance but the form which the PQ’s xenophobia has taken.

The bill’s very first clause is a muddle:

In the pursuit of its mission, a public body must remain neutral in religious matters and reflect the secular nature of the State, while making allowance, if applicable, for the emblematic and toponymic elements of Québec’s cultural heritage that testify to its history.

But the real question, all long, has been what it means to “remain neutral in religious matters.” Does it, for instance, mean not having town council meetings open with prayers? What if the prayer, as the Québec Court of Appeal has held, is not really a religious exercise but an element of Québec’s cultural heritage? Can a prayer really be that? The bill does nothing to answer these questions ― it is not meant to.

Consider next the Charter of Shame’s most discussed and most controversial provision, the ban on public employees wearing religious symbols. Mr. Drainville used little drawings to explain that it is meant to apply to the Muslim veil or the yarmulke, as well to large crosses,  but not to  small crosses, or crescent or star of David pendants. But a bill cannot use pitcograms ― it has to find a verbal formula to convey meaning. They say that an image is worth a thousand words, but clause 5 of the Charter of Shame makes do with just 33:

In the exercise of their functions, personnel members of public bodies must not wear objects such as headgear, clothing, jewelry or other adornments which, by their conspicuous nature, overtly indicate a religious affiliation.

What meaning does it convey though? Does a hijab have a “conspicuous nature”? Perhaps to Mr. Drainville it does. To those less fearful of people who look differently from themselves, it might not. To an Islamist fanatic, it is not the hijab but an uncovered head that is conspicuous. A court called upon to interpret this provision will not adopt a fanatic’s viewpoint ― but must it adopt Mr. Drainville’s? Conversely, a small cross of the sort that many Christians surely “overtly indicates a religious affiliation,” and ― depending on just how it is worn ― it can easily be visible. Who says it is not conspicuous?

Another well-publicized requirement of the Charter of Shame is the ban on full face veils that applies both to public employees and to those receiving public services. But does it? Clause 7 provides that “[p]ersons must ordinarily have their face uncovered when receiving services from personnel members of public bodies” (emphasis mine), and its second paragraph specifically contemplates the possibility of “accommodation.” Presumably, Mr. Drainville is not quite heartless enough to throw niqab-wearing women out of emergency rooms, but reading this bill, we can hardly tell.

And so it goes on, from fudge to equivocation to understatement. Will the obligations imposed by the Charter of Shame apply to those in the private sector who do business with the government? If the government so decides if “warranted by the circumstances” (clause 10). What will happen to employees who refuse to take off a religious symbol? They’ll get a talking to (clause 14). And what then? Will they be fired? Silence.

It is a staple of formal accounts of the Rule of Law that making law public is likely to make it, if not substantively better, then at least less bad, because legislators do not like to make their bad intentions clear. Yet we know that this is not always so; openly iniquitous laws are sometimes enacted. But it is true often enough. And so with the Charter of Shame: it is iniquitous enough, and yet in many ways it dares not proclaim the discrimination it works openly.

It is indeed a statute written to escape its own meaning. It is poetry, poetry of the worst kind, poetry that gives the Vogons’ a run for its money. It must not become law.

“We All Have to Compromise”

Once again, apologies for the last week’s silence. I have a good excuse for once, however: I was in Israel to participate in a workshop on the “Law in a Changing Transnational World” at the Tel-Aviv University. The workshop was very instructive, and I plan on having a few posts in the coming days and weeks dealing with things I learned or heard about there. For now though, I will start with an anecdote, a story about what happened to me. I haven’t indulged into much of that here, nor do I intend to, but this particular story is, I think, directly relevant to some of the things I have been blogging on.

The story is from my flight back to New York yesterday. I had a window seat. My neighbour was an old and very conservatively dressed lady (a scarf over her hair, long skirt, etc.). And in the aisle seat next to her was supposed to sit an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man ― referring to him as a gentleman, as you will presently see, would not have been appropriate. When he came to his seat and saw the seating arrangements, he asked me ― but not my neighbour ― if I would mind changing places with her. I asked why. “Because,” he said, “I don’t like like seating next to a lady.” I asked my neighbour what she thought about it. She squirmed. So I said that I’d rather stay where I was. The man was visibly annoyed and displayed his annoyance hovering around the seat he did not want to take for a minute or two ― and then went away, never to be seen again. (There were a few empty seats on the plane, fortunately.) As for my neighbour, she turned out to be a Talmud scholar, and, needless to say, very religious herself. She also turned out to be worldly, knowledgeable about all sorts of things, a pacifist, and very pleasant.

The reason I’m telling this story is, of course, the protracted, and often unseemly, debate about how to deal with expression of religion, in the West generally, and specifically in Québec in light of the “Values Charter” proposal. Those who would like to ban various forms of religious expression from the public sphere often argue that religious symbols such as the burka or the hijjab stand for gender inequality; some of them also say, with various degrees of laboured politeness, that religious people want to take over our societies and remake them in their image.

Well, there certainly was an awful lot of sexism, and perhaps even some aggression in our would-not-be neighbour. His behaviour and beliefs are distasteful ― and, by the way, hate-speech or anti-discrimination legislation should not prevent me (or anyone) from saying this. And, importantly, in our private interactions, we can and ought to resist that sort of behaviour.

But what the law should do about it is a very different matter. Not only did we not need the law to make this person go away ― in this case at least ― but no law could force him to change his retrograde beliefs. Certainly laws such as the proposed “Charter of Values,” which would ban public-sector employees from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols would not eliminate or even reduce the bigotry that some religious beliefs encourage.

What such laws do, however, is to marginalize religious believers, regardless of their actual views on such matters as gender equality or the separation of religion and state. If the “Charter of Values” were enacted (and not invalidated, as it in fact would be, by courts), my neighbour might not be able teach in a university in Québec ― depending on whether her scarf is construed as a “conspicuous religious symbol,” a point on which Bernard Drainville’s pictograms provide no clear answer. Would excluding her advance the cause of equality? I think not. My neighbour, in fact, was a living illustration of the fact, which those who claim to defend equality by banning religious expression conveniently ignore or even deny, that religious, and even very religious, women are not always stupid, deluded, or oppressed. Many of them are smart, knowledgeable, and free in any meaningful sense.

She also proves that religious people generally are not all fanatics bent on world domination. In her own words, “we all have to make compromises.” And also try to see people, not just labels, in front of us.

Storm and Havoc

Time for more shameless self-promotion, after my rant on Thursday about not being cited by the Québec Court of Appeal. A paper of mine, called “Storm and Havoc: The Rule of Law and Religious Exemptions,” is coming out any time now in the Revue Juridique Thémis de l’Université de Montréal, a mere three years after it started life as my LL.M. thesis. You can download it from SSRN.

Here is the abstract:

Exemptions from laws of general application for members of religious groups are controversial. One reason for this is an exemption seems to elevate those to whom it is granted above the ordinary law, and to make them a law unto themselves. This article examines the theoretical foundation for such claims: the conflict between religious exemptions and the ideal of the Rule of Law, influential accounts of which emphasize the requirement of legal generality. It inquires into the different meanings of legal generality and explains why religious exemptions are problematic from a Rule of Law perspective. It scrutinizes the usual defences of religious exemptions and points out their weaknesses. Nevertheless, it argues that because religious freedom, which exemptions help secure, and the Rule of Law are based on the same philosophical foundation, the dignity of the person as an autonomous moral agent, the relationship between religious exemptions and the Rule of Law is not purely antagonistic. The tension which the critics of exemptions expose is real, but some religious exemptions ought to be granted. The article outlines a framework for deciding when religious exemptions should be granted and when denied, and concludes with some observations on the institutions that can be entrusted with deciding whether to grant an exemption.

And here’s a bit from the introduction (sans footnotes):

The desideratum that laws be general, albeit expressed with varying degrees of strength, is a staple of various accounts of the Rule of Law. One of its best-known formulations belongs to A.V. Dicey, who meant by “the rule of law […] not only that […] no man is above the law, but […] that […] every man […] is subject to the ordinary law of the realm”. Dicey was most concerned with legal privileges for the government and its officials, but his ideal of “legal equality” naturally implies also that no class of private citizens ought to bear burdens or enjoy privileges not imposed or conferred upon others.

However, a law that is on its face the same for all citizens may in fact impose unique burdens on some of them. Those disproportionately affected by the law are likely to demand an exemption from its application. …

Whatever the forum and the circumstances in which a demand [for an exemption] is made, it conflicts with the ideal of the Rule of Law. … However, because the realization of the ideal of the Rule of Law is a matter of degree, and is in any event “just one of the virtues which a legal system may possess and by which it is to be judged”, it may yield to other ideals that we hold dear. …

The question this article sets out to explore is whether religious freedom is one such ideal. In other words, can the claim that conforming to a general law would be an insufferable burden on one’s freedom of religion justify the creation …  of an exemption from that general law in favor of the claimant? Today this issue is perhaps most salient in the context of the larger debate on the role of religion in a democratic, pluralist polity. Yet the fear that religious observance, rooted as it is in strong feelings and commitments, will lead to disrespect for the law and perhaps even a general state of lawlessness is not new. Even supporters of religious freedom have long noted it, as appears from the admixture of trepidation and exhilaration in Lord Acton’s description of “the equal claim of every man to be unhindered by man in the fulfillment of duty to God [as] a doctrine laden with storm and havoc […] and the indestructible soul of the revolution”.

The paper was, needless to say, inspired by the controversy over religion that has been going on in Québec ever since the Supreme Court’s decision in Multani v. Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys, 2006 SCC 6, [2006] 1 SCR 256. It does not speak directly to the most recent and most shameful version of this controversy, that about the “Charter of Québec Values” and its ban of “conspicuous religious symbols” for public employees. But it does include an argument in defence of religious liberty and of the respect of each believer’s subjective views, which are, I think, quite topical. I might blog in more detail about some of my arguments, but in the meantime, I encourage you to read the whole thing. It is, I am afraid, a bit long, but ― so the anonymous reviewer told me ― a pleasant read.


Danai Preces Legentes

Although courts in different countries are not infrequently called upon to consider similar issues, it is not very often that they do so at the exact same time. But that might be the case this year with the question the constitutionality of municipal councils opening their meetings with prayers. In Canada, the dispute concerns the prayers read by the mayor of Saguenay, which the Québec Court of Appeal upheld in Saguenay (Ville de) c. Mouvement Laïque Québécois, 2013 QCCA 936 ― as not being really prayers at all, but rather cultural manifestations. The respondents, who had challenged the prayer pursuant to Québec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, have applied to the Supreme Court of Canada for leave to appeal that ruling. And in the United States, the Supreme Court is set to consider the practice of a small city modestly called Greece of inviting local clergymen or citizens to read prayers at town council meetings, in Town of Greece v. Galloway. (SCOTUSblog’s inestimable Lyle Denison wrote about it here.)

The SCOTUSblog organized an online symposium about Town of Greece, which might be of interest to those thinking about the issue on either side of the border. Constitutional texts, traditions, and precedents differ (and indeed I think that relying on the American decision that is going to be the crucial precedent in Town of Greece, Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983) was one of the more egregious errors in the Québec Court of Appeal’s decision in Saguenay, because that decision employed an originalist logic that is entirely foreign to Canadian rights jurisprudence). There are differences between the relevant facts of Saguenay and Town of Greece too; in the former case, the prayer is non-denominational (supposedly anyway), but read by the mayor himself, while in the latter prayers are those of specific religious groups, but read by members of those groups, at the town council’s invitation, rather than by official representatives of the municipality. Nonetheless, some arguments of principle can cross borders easily enough, and apply to both situations.

Although they must be considered in light of each jurisdiction’s own constitutional text, precedent, and tradition, many of the questions the courts on both sides of the border must address are the same. What does it mean for the state not to take sides in religious controversies, or not to favour one group of believers over others? What is the degree of coercion that makes a governmental practice take sides? Does it matter that a prayer is sectarian or not? How to square ― in a principled way, one hopes ― the fact that religious manifestations and symbols are an ineradicable part of our heritage, whether the biblical references in Abraham Lincoln’s speeches or the crosses on the flags of Canadian provinces, with the modern commitment to the neutrality of the state? And, of course, what are the appropriate respective roles of courts and legislatures in answering these questions?

Those are not easy questions, though this does not mean that there are no clear answers to them. I continue to believe that prayer cannot be re-imagined as a cultural artifact similar perhaps to a biblical reference in a text; that even a non-denominational prayer favours some religious creeds over others (and of course over irreligion); and that official prayers are coercive, even if those who wish not to take part in them are permitted to leave the room where they take place. In my view, which I explained in more detail here, the Québec Court of Appeal’s decision in Saguenay was an aberration. As I said then, this mess deserves a big benchslap. I hope that the Supreme Court of Canada takes the case and delivers one; and that, in the process, it gives us an interesting occasion for comparing our constitutional jurisprudence with that of our neighbours.

Eux non plus

Je voudrais revenir sur le sujet de la laïcité des représentants de l’État, dont j’ai déjà énormément parlé en lien avec la « Charte des valeurs québécoises » proposée par le gouvernement du Québec. Un aspect du débat qui entoure cette proposition que je n’ai pas abordé jusqu’à présent, c’est l’existence d’un assez large consensus sur l’imposition de restrictions sur le port de signes religieux par certains représentants de l’État, ceux qu’on décrit généralement comme exerçant un pouvoir de coercition: les juges, les procureurs de la couronne, les gardiens de prison, et les policiers. Même plusieurs personnes qui se sont opposées à une interdiction qui s’étendrait à d’autres employés des secteurs public et para-public se sont prononcés en faveur de cette mesure plus limitée. Or, elle n’est pas davantage justifiée. Non seulement manque-t-elle de cohérence et n’est fort probablement pas permise par la jurisprudence de la Cour suprême, mais elle souffre du même vice de principe que l’interdiction générale à laquelle elle se veut une alternative raisonnable.

Tout d’abord, la définition d’employés de l’État exerçant un pouvoir coercitif est illogique. Les procureurs de la couronne, par exemple, n’exercent pas eux-mêmes un véritable pouvoir coercitif. Même s’ils sont évidemment un élément important dans un système coercitifs, leurs actions (même, par exemple, dans le cadre de négociations sur des plaidoyers de culpabilité) sont sujettes au contrôle des juges. D’autres employés de l’État, par contre, exercent un pouvoir réel sur des citoyens (pensons, par exemple, à la Régie des alcools, qui peut ― comme nous rappelle la cause de Roncarelli c. Duplessis), ruiner un restaurateur en agissant pour des motifs indus), mais ne sont pas visés par la mesure proposée. Le critère d’exercice de pouvoir coercitif semble une étiquette malhabile collée à une liste de représentants de l’État choisis plutôt en fonction de leur visibilité que de la nature de leurs fonctions. Du reste, une définition cohérente de ce qui est et ce qui n’est pas un pouvoir coercitif de l’État serait probablement très difficile à établir.

Ensuite, la jurisprudence de la Cour suprême en matière d’impartialité des juges permet de mettre en doute la constitutionnalité de l’interdiction proposée. La raison invoquée pour interdire le port de certains signes religieux par des représentants de l’État ― qu’il ne s’agisse que de ceux qui exercent un pouvoir coercitif on non ― c’est le devoir d’impartialité qui incombe à ceux-ci dans l’exercice de leurs fonctions. Or, dans R. c. S. (R.D.), [1997] 3 R.C.S. 484, la Cour suprême a statué qu’un juge ne suscite pas une « crainte raisonnable de partialité » même en faisant appel à une expérience et perspective personnelles qui lui sont propres ― dans cette affaire, il s’agissait de l’expérience d’une juge de première instance en tant que membre d’une minorité visible. Comme l’ont écrit les juges McLachlin et L’Heureux-Dubé (eh oui, cette même juge L’Heureux-Dubé qui aujourd’hui, heureusement de sa retraite, défend l’interdiction mur-à-mur de symboles religieux),

il est indubitable que dans une société bilingue, multiraciale et multiculturelle, chaque juge aborde l’exercice de la justice dans une perspective qui lui est propre. Il aura certainement été conditionné et formé par ses expériences personnelles, et on ne peut s’attendre à ce qu’il s’en départisse dès qu’il est nommé juge. …

Il est manifeste, et la personne raisonnable s’y attend, que le juge des faits est à juste titre influencé dans ses délibérations par sa propre conception du monde dans lequel ont eu lieu les faits litigieux. En effet, il doit s’appuyer sur ses acquis antérieurs pour exercer ses fonctions juridictionnelles. (Par. 38-39)

Or, si l’invocation d’expériences personnelles, y compris d’expériences vécues en tant que membre d’un groupe social particulier, ne cause pas de crainte raisonnable de partialité, on ne saurait a fortiori prétendre qu’une crainte de partialité est raisonnable dès le moment où un juge ne fait que manifester son appartenance à un tel groupe, sans que cette appartenance n’affecte son jugement. Et s’il en va de même pour les juges, il doit a fortiori en être autant des autres représentants de l’État. La crainte de partialité des fonctionnaires qui motive l’interdiction du port de symboles religieux n’est pas raisonnable, et ne devrait donc pas être considérée comme une justification suffisante, au sens de l’article 1 de la Charte canadienne des droits et libertés, pour restreindre la liberté religieuse.

Enfin, au-delà même de considérations pratiques ou juridiques, l’interdiction du port de symboles religieux au nom de la neutralité de l’État, peu importe à qui elle s’appliquerait, est illogique et injuste parce qu’elle suppose que l’appartenance religieuse est synonyme de partialité alors que l’appartenance à toutes sortes d’autres groupes ne l’est pas. Comme j’écrivais déjà dans cette chronique,

l’idée que l’apparence physique d’un fonctionnaire doit être neutralisée pour s’assurer qu’il exercera ses fonctions avec neutralité tient du mirage ou de l’hypocrisie. L’apparence physique d’une personne révèle généralement son appartenance à toutes sortes de groupes : à un sexe, à une race, à une certaine tranche d’âge. On ne songerait pas à imposer la burqa comme uniforme pour les fonctionnaires (hommes et femmes, bien entendu), pour éviter que les citoyens ne sachent s’ils sont servis par un homme ou par une femme, par un blanc ou un noir, un jeune ou une personne âgée.

 Nous savons que le fonctionnaire, le policier, le juge à qui nous faisons face appartient à un ou plusieurs de ces groupes. Pourtant, nous devons, comme citoyens, présumer de leur bonne foi et de leur neutralité.

 L’appartenance religieuse n’est pas différente des autres formes d’appartenance. Elle est, parfois, facilement identifiable. Mais il n’est pas davantage raisonnable de douter de l’impartialité d’une fonctionnaire qui porte le hijab du seul fait qu’elle est musulmane qu’il serait de douter de son impartialité parce qu’elle est une femme.

En bout de ligne, peu importe son champ d’application, l’interdiction de symboles religieux est le fait d’une hostilité à la religion, qu’on vise comme une forme d’appartenance singulièrement pernicieuse ― sans expliquer pourquoi elle l’est. Bien sûr, lorsque cette interdiction ne s’applique dans les faits qu’aux symboles de religions autres que celle de la majorité, elle est aussi manifestement discriminatoire. Le fait de ne l’étendre qu’à un groupe relativement restreint de représentants de l’État n’en change pas l’injustice et l’irrationalité.

Not Even Close

I said I would stop writing about the Québec Charter of Values for a while, but I’ll break that promise already, albeit only to report that a number of law professors have given their views on it in the last couple days. Their verdict is almost unanimous: the proposed Charter’s key part, the prohibition on state employees wearing “conspicuous” religious symbol is certainly unconstitutional.

First, there is this discussion in the Globe. Ten of the eleven participants (mostly professors, but also a couple of barristers) argue that the proposed Charter is unconstitutional. One of them goes so far as to say that “[t]he only question is how polite the court will be in stating so.” The lone dissenting voice is that of Daniel Turp, who these days teaches constitutional law at Université de Montréal. However, although the Globe does not say this, prof. Turp is a partisan ― he is both a former Bloc Québécois MP and and a former PQ member of Québec’s legislature. Prof. Turp is also rather fond of far-fetched constitutional arguments. His comments, which cite a number of decisions of the European Court of Human rights, but none of the Supreme Court of Canada, just aren’t persuasive.

And second, there is this op-ed by a distinguished group of law professors in the Journal de Montréal, arguing that it is unclear what purpose the ban on religious symbols serves or how it is connected to that purpose, and that it is, in any event, disproportionate. It “very unlikely” that it would be upheld by the courts.

My own conclusion, which I presented here, is exactly the same. The ban on religious symbols is unconstitutional. It’s not even close.

Chasser les marchands du temple

J’ai beaucoup écrit cette semaine sur la « Charte des valeurs » avec laquelle le gouvernement péquiste se propose d’enchâsser en loi l’intolérance et la méfiance envers « l’autre », celui ― et surtout celle ― qui ne ressemble pas à ce qu’on est habitué de voir « chez nous », intolérance et méfiance qu’il croit détecter, non sans raison hélas, chez une partie de la population, et grâce auxquelles il compte gagner les votes aux prochaines élections. Et tant pis si c’est une honte internationale. Tant mieux, même, puisque le gouvernement peut s’ériger en défendeur de la nation contre ces étrangers, généralement anglophones, qui veulent lui faire la leçon.

Je pense avoir dit pas mal ce qu’il y avait à dire sans trop me répéter. Je vais donc conclure, du moins provisoirement, en attendant d’autres développements. Et en guise de conclusion, voici un texte que j’ai écrit mardi, tout de suite après la présentation du projet de la « Charte des valeurs ». J’ai essayé de le faire publier ailleurs, ça n’a pas marché, mais je l’aime quand même. Voici.


Interdits, donc, les signes religieux ostentatoires, sauf bien sûr qui ne le seront pas, tel le crucifix à l’Assemblée nationale, si le gouvernement du Parti québécois a gain de cause. Cela, Bernard Drainville l’a confirmé aujourd’hui, en annonçant officiellement le projet de « Charte des valeurs » que son gouvernement cherchera à faire adopter par l’Assemblée nationale, sous le regard justement de ce Christ tourmenté.

M. Drainville a raison, du reste, d’affirmer qu’il ne s’agit là que d’une relique patrimoniale et non d’un symbole religieux. Car on est bien loin de cette religion fondée sur la prémisse qu’ «il n’y a plus ni Juif ni Grec, il n’y a plus ni esclave ni libre, il n’y a plus ni homme ni femme ». Dans le Québec de M. Drainville, ces distinctions sont capitales. Un employé juif ou une employée musulmane, s’ils tiennent à leur foi, devront être expulsés de la fonction publique, d’une université, d’un hôpital, d’une école, d’une garderie. Une femme juive ou un homme musulman, ça va. Pour l’instant.

Ce que M. Drainville n’a pas expliqué, en revanche, c’est pourquoi le Québec devrait être tel qu’il se l’imagine, celui de l’interdit, de l’uniformité, de la méfiance, plutôt que celui de l’ouverture, celui qui, avec Gilles Vigneault, mettait «son temps et son espace à préparer le feu, la place pour les humains de l´horizon ». Car les motifs avancés pour justifier les atteintes sans précédent à la liberté individuelle et à l’égalité que la « Charte des valeurs » va opérer ne sauraient convaincre.

La justification sur laquelle M. Drainville a le plus insisté, un besoin de balises communes pour encadrer les demandes d’accommodements, ne suffit guère. Un besoin de balises communes ne justifie pas, en soi, que ces balises soient restrictives. Une « Charte de liberté religieuse » pourrait tout aussi bien servir de point de référence commun. (D’ailleurs, les États-Unis, premier pays à avoir enchâssé dans sa constitution la séparation de l’église et de l’État, ont une loi de cette nature, disposant que toute atteinte à la liberté religieuse doit être justifiée comme étant étroitement adoptée pour réaliser un besoin gouvernemental impérieux.) Pourquoi donc l’approche répressive? M. Drainville ne nous le dit pas.

Le gouvernement invoque aussi la neutralité de l’État et de ses employés. Or, a-t-on vu seulement une allégation, sans parler d’une preuve, d’un manque de neutralité d’un employé de l’État qui affichait son appartenance religieuse? La position du gouvernement n’est pas un argument, c’est de la pure conjecture. Tout comme on doit s’attendre à ce qu’un employé de l’État du sexe, d’un âge ou d’une race différents des nôtres exerce ses fonctions avec intégrité et professionnalisme, on devrait présumer la même chose face une différence religieuse. Pourquoi renverser la présomption dans le seul cas de la religion? M. Drainville ne nous le dit pas.

Finalement, on prétend que la « Charte des valeurs » serait nécessaire pour affirmer l’égalité entre les hommes et les femmes. Pourtant, elle ratisse bien large pour ce faire ― la kippa ou le turban sont-ils des symboles sexistes? Et quant à la véritable cible de cet argument, le foulard des musulmanes pieuses, son interdiction ne servira qu’à exclure ces dernières de la société québécoise. Pourquoi donc une loi qui fera reculer plutôt qu’avancer l’égalité des sexes? M. Drainville ne nous le dit pas.

Au bout du compte, tout porte à croire que les justifications  auxquelles s’accroche le gouvernement ne sont que de la poudre aux yeux des citoyens. La « Charte des valeurs » n’est qu’un exercice partisan, une tentative d’acheter des votes aux frais des minorités. C’est pourquoi, de quelque religion nous soyons ou si nous n’en avons aucune, le temps est venu de nous inspirer de ce Christ qui regarde les délibérations de nos législateurs. Le temps est venu de chasser les marchands du temple de la démocratie.

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?

Histoire des deux chartes

Dans sa démarche de propagande pour nous faire avaler sa « Charte des valeurs », le gouvernement du Québec la compare souvent à la Loi 101, la Charte de la langue française. L’argument est que les deux Chartes sont semblables en ce qu’elles sont nécessaires et, surtout, en ce que, bien qu’extrêmement controversées au départ, elles finiront par faire consensus comme pierres angulaires de l’identité et de l’ordre public québécois. Il est vrai que la Loi 101 ― mitigée, ne l’oublions pas, par la Cour suprême, dont l’Assemblée nationale a fini par accepter les décisions (notamment celle dans Ford c. Québec (Procureur général), [1988] 2 R.C.S. 712, invalidant l’interdiction de l’affichage commercial dans les langues autres que le français) ― a fini par faire largement consensus. Pour ma part, je l’estime profondément illibérale, injuste et injustifiée ― mais je reconnais que ce point de vue est très minoritaire. Ce n’est pas important à présent. Ce que je veux souligner dans ce billet, c’est qu’il y a des différences considérables entre la Charte des la langue française revue et corrigée et la « Charte des valeurs », des différences qui démontrent bien le caractère oppressif de cette dernière.

La première de ces différences concerne la distribution du fardeau imposée par ces chartes. Certes, à certains égards (telle l’exigence de la prédominance du français dans l’affichage commercial), la Loi 101 pèse plus lourd sur les minorités linguistiques que sur la majorité francophone. Cependant, cette majorité s’est également imposé des restrictions considérables, notamment en ce qui concerne l’accès à l’éducation. Il serait sans doute futile de parler d’une distribution « équitable » de ces contraintes, puisqu’elles sont largement incommensurables, mais il est clair que la Charte de la langue française exige un effort de toutes les communautés du Québec, y compris de la majorité. La « Charte des valeurs » ne le fait pas. Au contraire, elle est délibérément conçue pour n’affecter que les minorités religieuses, dont les symboles d’affiliation sont souvent « ostentatoires », tout en ne demandant aucun sacrifice à la majorité catho-laïque. Au contraire, elle exempte les symboles religieux de celle-ci, notamment le fameux crucifix de l’Assemblé nationale. Contrairement à la Loi 101, qui impose un effort commun, la « Charte des valeurs » est l’incarnation même de l’idée de la tyrannie de la majorité.

La seconde différence entre les deux Chartes concerne leur approche à la différence, au fait de la diversité de la société québécoise. Dans sa mouture actuelle, la Charte de la langue française n’essaie pas d’éliminer ou même à cacher la diversité linguistique du Québec. Elle impose le français comme langue commune et prédominante, mais n’interdit plus l’expression des autres langues sur la place publique. Elle exige que la grande majorité des enfants aillent à l’école française, mais leur permet de se tourner vers le CÉGEP et l’université en anglais s’ils le désirent. Le gouvernement du Québec communique en anglais avec les citoyens qui le souhaitent. La « Charte des valeurs », quant à elle, vise précisément à cacher le pluralisme religieux du Québec. Elle bannit toute expression de la différence, reléguant la diversité entre les quatre murs de la maison ou de l’église. Elle postule que les citoyens qui font affaire avec l’État, ou même les fonctionnaires qui ne font affaire qu’avec d’autres fonctionnaires, ne doivent pas voir cette diversité. Contrairement à la Loi 101, qui vise à s’assurer que le français puisse servir de point de référence commun, mais non nécessairement le seul moyen d’expression autorisé, la « Charte des valeurs » crée une seule expression permise.

Évidemment, il y a aussi toute la question de justification de l’une et l’autre Chartes. D’autres se sont déjà amplement prononcés sur ce sujet. Ne partageant pas l’opinion majoritaire quant à la justification de la Loi 101, je ne le ferai pas. De toute façon, quoi qu’on pense de la Charte de la langue française, il n’y a pas de comparaison possible entre elle et la « Charte des valeurs ».