Le Point Godwin

J’ai promis, dans mon dernier billet, où j’analysais la constitutionnalité de la « Charte des valeurs » proposée par le gouvernement du Québec, de dire des méchancetés au sujet de celle-ci. Eh bien, en voici la plus grande. Ce projet ressemble drôlement à une loi Nazie de 1933, la Loi sur la restauration de la fonction publique (Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums, GWB). Cette loi, proclamée seulement quelques mois après l’arrivée d’Hitler au pouvoir, a exclu de la fonction publique et de l’enseignement les personnes d’ascendance « non-aryenne » ― c’est à dire les Juifs ― ainsi que les indésirables politiques. En ce qui me concerne, j’ai du mal à voir en quoi l’expulsion de fonctionnaires, de profs, de médecins ou d’éducatrices dont la religion leur impose le port de signes qualifiés d’ « ostentatoires » en vertu de la « Charte des valeurs » est différente de cette première purge nazie.

Il me vient à l’esprit un seul argument possible ― possible, mais non persuasif. Être Juif, selon la compréhension nazie, n’était qu’une question de sang. Ce n’était, évidemment, pas un choix qu’une personne pouvait faire. Porter un symbole religieux ostentatoire, dira-t-on peut-être, est un choix. La première ministre a prétendu qu’ « on peut aider cette personne-là sûrement à cheminer et à accepter de vivre avec les règles que la société se donne ».

C’est du délire. La personne qui sent un devoir supérieur de porter un voile, une kippa, un turban ne peut pas « cheminer » pour, graduellement, changer d’avis. Elle peut, contre sa conscience, se soumettre à la force. Certaines le feront. La plupart ne le feront pas, parce qu’elles se sentent incapables de le faire. La foi peut se manifester, entre autres, par un choix vestimentaire, mais elle n’est une chose superficielle à laquelle on peut renoncer pour le bien commun. L’obligation qu’on éprouve envers sa conscience est supérieure à celle qu’on éprouve envers la loi, envers la société. Mme. Marois et tous ceux qui soutiennent le projet de son gouvernement s’en rendraient compte d’ailleurs, s’ils prenaient le temps de se demander comment ils se sentiraient si, disons, un autre gouvernement ré-instituait le Serment du test. En bonne conscience, on n’a pas plus le choix de ses obligations religieuses que de sa race, de sa nationalité ou de son sexe.

C’est pourquoi j’insiste sur ce parallèle entre la proposition du PQ et la loi nazie sur la fonction publique. Attention: je ne dis pas que les péquistes sont des nazis. Je suis loin de croire, par exemple, que le PQ s’est inspiré d’Hitler pour façonner sa  proposition. Non, au contraire, il est fort probable les auteurs de celle-ci soient tout simplement ignorants de l’histoire. Je ne dis pas, non plus, que si Hitler, ayant commencé par la purge de la fonction publique, a fini par les chambres à gaz, le PQ va en faire autant. Certainement pas. Je fais seulement le parallèle entre deux politiques spécifiques.

Je m’attends néanmoins à ce qu’on m’invoque « la loi Godwin », ou plutôt l’interprétation de cette loi voulant que la personne qui compare son adversaire aux Nazis doit être considérée comme ayant, ipso facto, perdu l’argument. Sauf que, cette « loi » ne saurait être érigée en dogme. Comme l’explique, par exemple, Glenn Greenwald, on n’a pas besoin d’avoir construit des chambres à gaz pour faire certaines des choses qui ont rendu Adolf Hitler l’homme le plus honni de l’histoire. Lorsqu’un politicien fait une de ces choses, invoquer la loi Godwin comme argument massue destiné à mettre fin à la discussion n’est qu’un moyen d’éviter une  discussion inconfortable ― exactement la même chose que la comparaison à Hitler sert à accomplir dans les cas proprement visés par la loi Godwin.

Je ne veux pas, moi, mettre fin à la discussion ― encore que j’eusse préférée que la discussion autour de la « Charte des valeurs » n’ait pas eu lieu. Cependant, puisque cette discussion nous a été imposée, je pense qu’elle gagnerait à tenir compte de faits historiques pertinents. La « Charte des valeurs » est une énormité sans précédent dans l’histoire récente du Québec et du Canada. Il est impératif de bien en saisir l’ampleur.

ADDENDUM: Je souligne, au passage, pour ceux qui seraient intéressés à purifier le discours politique des références nazies qu’ils feraient bien de commencer par la désignation de ce qu’on appelle en anglais le Kitchen Accord comme la « Nuit des longs couteaux ».

ADDENDUM #2: Je réponds à une critique de mon analogie, telle qu’articulée par Mathieu dans son commentaire ci-dessous, dans ce billet.

Of Course Not

The Québec government’s proposal for a “Charter of Québec Values” is now official. It’s not much of a proposal, actually ― there is no bill, and there isn’t going to be for months yet ― but we do have a fancy website on which the government explains what the Charter will do. (The English version isn’t all in English, but I don’t suppose one can expect better from the PQ government.)

The highlight proposal is, as had long been known, a prohibition on “conspicuous religious symbols” ― Jewish skullcaps, Muslim veils of any kind, Sikh Turbans, and large crosses, though not small ones (the government isn’t saying how large is large and how small is small) ― for any government employees, as well as those of public schools, public or subsidized childcare centres, universities, and hospitals. Some of the institutions affected (universities, hospitals, and municipalities) would have the right to exempt themselves from the application of this measure for renewable periods of five years. Others (notably schools) would not. Québec’s “heritage” would also be exempt from this measure ― so the rather conspicuous crucifix hanging in the National Assembly will stay right where it is. (There is no ban on prayer in municipal councils either ― though the government doesn’t even pretend to have a reason for that.)

Many nasty things have been said and will be said about this project. I will say some too here in the coming days. (UPDATE: Come to think of it, I have already been saying nasty things about it in my last post.) But, for the moment, I will start with a constitutional analysis, hopefully a relatively dispassionate one. La Presse has one here, concluding that the constitutionality of the government’s project is “far from certain”; the CBC, after much equivocation, concludes that “[w]hen the debate centres around religion, it’s fair to say the devil is in the details.” For my part though, I see little place for nuance. The ban on “conspicuous” religious symbols is obviously unconstitutional.

There can be no question that it is a breach of the Charter’s guarantee of “freedom of conscience and religion” (s. 2(a)). As Justice Dickson (as he then was) said in R. v. Big M Drug Mart,  [1985] 1 S.C.R. 295,

[t]he essence of the concept of freedom of religion is the right to entertain such religious beliefs as a person chooses, the right to declare religious beliefs openly and without fear of hindrance or reprisal, and the right to manifest religious belief by worship and practice or by teaching and dissemination.

And it does not matter whether some “official” interpretation of a religion says that “conspicuous” symbols are not mandatory. As the Supreme Court held in Syndicat Northcrest v. Amselem, 2004 SCC 47, [2004] 2 S.C.R. 551, if a person sincerely believes that she must wear the veil, or that he must wear the turban, then she or he has a constitutional right to do so.

Like all other Charter rights, the freedom of religion is “subject to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society” (s. 1). This means that restrictions on religious liberty must have some “pressing and substantial” objective, that they must be “rationally connected” to that objective, that they must be as limited as possible to achieve that objective, and that their overall positive effects must outweigh the negative ones. The ban on religious symbols will not pass this test.

The objectives invoked by the Québec government ― the need for common rules, state neutrality, and equality of men and women ― sound important enough. In any case, the Supreme Court has almost always been very deferential to governments at that stage of the test. The same is true of the “rational connection” stage. Yet here already, the government’s case might begin to crumble. It is by no means clear, for instance, how gender equality is served by prohibiting not only the veil (which even Bernard Drainville, the author of the government’s proposals, recognizes isn’t necessarily a symbol of oppression), but also the yarmulke and the turban, or indeed how banning Muslim women from the public service will advance the cause of their equality. Still, it is likely enough that courts will find that these measures are rationally connected at least to the objective of state neutrality, and also to that of having common rules.

The ban will, however, fail the “minimal impairment” stage of the test. Common rules, of course, can be permissive as well as restrictive. A blanket ban on religious symbols is by no means the least restrictive measure that can achieve this aim. As for state neutrality, it is important to note that the government, which bears the burden of proof under s. 1 of the Charter, has no evidence at all of any problems with the neutrality of civil servants or state institutions. (Much like Stockwell Day, who justified the federal government’s “tough on crime” legislative agenda by an alleged increase in “unreported crime,” Mr. Drainville claims that people are too reluctant to report such incidents.) The Supreme Court has sometimes “relied on logic, reason and some social science evidence in the course of the justification analysis” (Harper v. Canada (Attorney General), 2004 SCC 33, [2004] 1 S.C.R. 827, at par. 78), but, as Chief Justice McLachlin wrote in Sauvé v. Canada (Chief Electoral Officer), 2002 SCC 68, [2002] 3 S.C.R. 519, at par. 18, “one must be wary of stereotypes cloaked as common sense, and of substituting deference for the reasoned demonstration required by s. 1.” And the Québec government doesn’t even have the fig leaf of social science evidence which the federal government had in Harper. In addition, the blanket ban proposed by the government is overbroad, because it applies even to state employees who are not in contact with the public or could not be said, by any reasonable person, to represent the authority of the state (say school janitors or hospital cooks). At the same time, the fact that the government is willing to make exceptions for many employees suggests that a blanket ban isn’t actually necessary. In short, I fail to see how the government might succeed in demonstrating that the ban is “minimally impairing” of its employees’ rights.

Finally, when it comes to balancing the salutary and the deleterious effects of the policy, the latter clearly prevail. Because there is no real problem with a lack, or even a perception of a lack, of neutrality in state institutions. Furthermore, because of its patchwork nature, the ban achieves very little, except symbolically. On the other hand, those who challenge it will have no difficulty in demonstrating that its negative effects, notably in forcing people to choose between their faith and their employment ― a choice that will lead to people being forced out of their jobs ― will be considerable.

Thus it is quite clear to me that the ban on state employees wearing religious symbols is an unconstitutional violation of religious freedom. I am also pretty confident that it is a breach of equality rights protected by s. 15 of the Charter, because it has a disproportionate effect on the members of those religions whose symbols are “conspicuous,” which happens to exclude the numerically and politically dominant groups in Québec (the Catholics and the non-religious). Its burden falls squarely on minorities who have faced a history of discrimination, and the courts do not look kindly on such things.

The Québec government insists that it will not use the “notwithstanding” clause if and when it enacts the “Charter of values”, because it is confident that its constitutionality will be upheld. It will not be. Of course not.

UPDATE: Pour ceux qui voudraient lire une analyse en français, je recommande cet article de Radio-Canada explorant la question avec le doyen de la faculté de droit civil de l’Université d’Ottawa, Sébastien Grammond.

Collateral Damage

Religious liberty is in danger; protections that were, not long ago, taken for granted, is now at risk of being swept away by a rising tide of hostility to the claims of believers not only to have a right to worship as they see fit, but also to live their lives in accordance with the teachings of their faiths. And this is a cause for great regret for those who value freedom, whether or not they actually subscribe to the religious doctrines which conflict with the ever-expanding regulations imposed by the state. This is the lament of Douglas Laycock, who, in a great article called “Religious Liberty and the Culture Wars,” seeks to explain this phenomenon and to push back against it.

Prof. Laycock argues that the current wave of hostility to religious liberty in the United States is the result of “culture wars” fought largely over matters of sexual morality ― access to contraception, abortion, and gay rights, including especially same-sex marriage. This is similar to what happened in France, where the Church’s prolonged hostility not only to the excesses but to the very core of the Revolution of 1789 produced a climate of hostility to religion which, in turn led to a very narrow conception of religious freedom. In America, the revolution to which (most) religious authorities have been unflinchingly hostile is the sexual revolution that started in the 1960s (and of which the gay rights movement is a development):

conservative churches in this country have persistently been on the losing side of this Revolution. They have opposed not just the Sexual Revolution’s excesses; they have opposed its core. Each of the remaining sexual issues — abortion, same-sex marriage, contraception, sterilization, emergency contraception — has the same fundamental structure: what one side views as a grave evil, the other side views as a fundamental human right. For tens of millions of Americans, conservative churches have made themselves the enemy of liberty. (29)

Others read at least some of these issues as matters of equality and discrimination, rather than liberty, but the bottom line is the same. Religion becomes the enemy, a danger, a sinister force that seeks to take away the most cherished rights of vulnerable citizens.

But on the other side too the claims are similar. For churches and for believers, the right to act on their religious views and duties are fundamental. For the pro-life movement in particular, the right to abortion (and some forms of contraception) is also an attack on the basic rights of the most vulnerable.

So both sides try to force the other to behave in ways they regard as morally right. On one side, there are “contraception mandates” and requirements that people who, for religious reasons, object to same-sex marriage, nevertheless provide their services for same-sex wedding ceremonies; on the other, attempts to ban abortion and same-sex marriage.

The conservative religious side is, to a greater or lesser extent, the loser in all of these fights. The danger is that not only its over-reaching claims, but all those of religious believers will be rejected. “Many disputes over the free exercise of religion involve unusual practices of small religions, unusual laws of little importance, or both” (32), but the arguments being developed to oppose religious claims on matters of sexual morality will make no distinctions. The weapons being forged for the culture wars are of such power that they will not allow the winners to take any prisoners even if they were inclined to do so. The conservative religious opponents of the sexual revolution will lose the war, but the liberty of all believers may well disappear as collateral damage.

Prof. Laycock urges both sides to stand down. They should defend their own freedom ― the freedom of same-sex couples to marry, the freedom of churches not to fund contraception ― but not require the other side to adopt their own standards of behaviour. Religious conservatives should not seek to ban same-sex marriage (just as they no longer seek, for example, to ban contraception); the secular side should not force service providers or professionals to do things they disapprove of, except in cases of local monopoly. In other words, live and let live. “We could still create a society in which both sides can live their own values, if we care enough about liberty to protect it for both sides” (41).

It will come as no surprise to those who have read my previous posts on the subject of law and religion that I share prof. Laycock’s worries and his normative conclusion. The attempts to force those who wish to live differently from us to live according to our standards rather than their own are a great danger to personal freedom. If they succeed in the religious realm, why not in some other? It is not only the religious or those whose views conflict with those of the religious who should be concerned here.

However, I wonder if prof. Laycock’s explanation for the recent hostility to religious freedom is not too narrow. The culture wars over sexual morality which he thinks to be cause of this hostility are mostly confined to the United States (because elsewhere religious conservatives are nowhere near powerful enough to make it a fight). The attacks on religious freedom are not. Prof. Laycock himself cites an op-ed by Doug Saunders in The Globe and Mail (which I have criticized here). In Québec, the freedoms of religious minorities are under threat from self-proclaimed secularists now governing the province, although the rearguard of religious conservatives remains free to conduct public prayers at town council meetings, and a crucifix still watches over the legislature’s deliberations. And in Europe too, freedom of religion is being curtailed, what with headscarf and burqa bans in France or the minaret ban in Switzerland. (Prof. Laycock links the French bans to the anti-religious climate which he traces to the Catholic church’s anti-revolutionary stance, but I don’t think it can explain the escalation of restrictions on religion in the last decade.)

And yet, “culture wars” are not a bad explanation for what is going on. Both in Québec and in Europe, hostility to religious liberty has a lot to do with a secular majority’s reluctance to accept within its midst religious minorities whose habits and appearance are different from its own. I’m not sure if something like that could be a fair description of what goes on in the United States. The problems prof. Laycock describes have nothing to do with immigration, though perhaps the increasing distance between the more-or-less-secular and the religious conservative parts of the American society is creating a somewhat similar dynamic.

Of course, it may be that the growth of the opposition to religious claims in the United States is quite unrelated to the same process elsewhere, and the two just happen to coincide. At most, the two movements exchange ideas and arguments, but each applies them for its own peculiar purposes. If so, prof. Laycock’s explanation may well be correct so far as the United States are concerned. But in today’s globalized and inter-connected world that would be somewhat surprising.

Be that as it may, prof. Laycock’s call to live and let live should be heeded everywhere, regardless of the precise local causes of anti-religious sentiment. Freedom is too important to let it be the victim of collateral damage of transient controversies. And though many people on both sides in debates about religious liberty regard themselves as really forcing their opponents to be genuinely free, they should realize that, not only will they not make them free by oppressing them, but they risk also losing their own liberty in the process.

Ceci n’est pas une prière

Le dictionnaire Larousse définit le mot « prière » comme un « [a]cte rituel par lequel on s’adresse à une divinité ou à ses intercesseurs », ou encore comme un « [e]nsemble de formules, en général codifiées, par lesquelles on s’adresse à Dieu ». La Cour d’appel du Québec, elle, a une autre vision des choses. Une prière, nous apprend-elle dans un jugement sorti lundi, Saguenay (Ville de) c. Mouvement Laïque Québécois, 2013 QCCA 936, ça n’a rien à voir avec la religion.

Le litige qui a mené à ce jugement opposait un citoyen de Saguenay, Gilles Simoneau, au maire de la ville, Jean Tremblay, qui ouvre chaque séance du conseil municipal en lisant une prière. D’abord une pratique informelle, la prière est, depuis 2008, encadrée par un règlement municipal. Son texte se veut non-confessionnel, invoquant un « Dieu tout puissant » générique. Le maire Tremblay, cependant, accompagne toujours sa prière de signes de croix. Le règlement prévoit également que la séance du conseil municipal ne commence que deux minutes après la fin de la prière, question de permettre à ceux qui désirent quitter la salle pour ne pas y assister de regagner leur place.

M. Simoneau et le Mouvement laïque québécois (MLQ) se sont adressés au Tribunal des droits de la personne du Québec, alléguant notamment que la prière étant une violation du devoir de neutralité des autorités municipales et, partant, de la liberté de religion et du droit à l’égalité de M. Simoneau protégés par la Charte (québécoise) des droits et libertés de la personne. Fait à noter, ils n’ont pas contesté la constitutionnalité du règlement qui encadre la prière. Le Tribunal leur a donné raison, et la municipalité et le maire ont fait appel.

(La plainte de M. Simoneau et du MLQ concernait aussi la présence de signes religieux dans les salles où se réunit le conseil municipal. La Cour conclut que le Tribunal des droits de la personne n’avait pas compétence pour se prononcer là-dessus, et je n’en parlerai pas davantage, pour ne pas alourdir un billet de toute façon beaucoup trop long.)

Les motifs de la Cour d’appel sur la question de la prière sont unanimes. La Cour écarte tout d’abord la preuve d’expert sur laquelle s’est largement appuyé le Tribunal des droits de la personne, statuant que l’expert de M. Simoneau et du MLQ a manqué d’impartialité, étant à l’époque un vice-président du MLQ et ayant affiché des positions extrêmement tranchées sur les questions de la la laïcité. La Cour choisit plutôt de s’appuyer sur l’expertise présentée par les appelants.

Quant au fond de la cause, la Cour statue que la prière ne porte pas atteinte aux droits de M. Simoneau. La neutralité religieuse de l’État n’exige pas, selon elle, l’évacuation de toute manifestation religieuse de l’espace public, du moins lorsque la manifestation religieuse en question est aussi une forme d’héritage culturel, que l’État se doit de protéger. Car ce qui était autrefois manifestement religieux et confessionnel peut être devenu aujourd’hui une partie de notre paysage culturel, symbolique (telle la croix sur le drapeau du Québec) ou même du paysage au sens littéral (telle la croix du Mont-Royal).

Certes, l’État ne doit pas imposer une conviction religieuse aux citoyens. Cependant, « les changements sociaux [tels que la séparation progressive de l’Église et de l’État] s’étudient dans le respect des valeurs et de la tradition politique de la société dans laquelle ils surviennent » (par. 66). Si documents constitutionnels et quasi-constitutionnels sont des « arbres vivants », c’est qu’ils ont des racines historiques et culturelles dont on ne saurait les couper. « En ce sens, la neutralité absolue de l’État ne […] semble pas envisageable d’un point de vue constitutionnel » (par. 68), pas plus que la « laïcité intégrale ».

Selon la Cour, qui s’appuie largement sur l’interprétation proposée par les experts des appelants (et qui rejette celle à la fois des intimés et du maire Tremblay lui-même) la prière que prononce le maire est une manifestation essentiellement culturelle.

[L]es valeurs exprimées par la prière litigieuse sont universelles et qu’elles ne s’identifient à aucune religion en particulier. … [C]ette prière est conforme à une doctrine théiste moderne, ouverte à certains particularismes religieux non envahissants et raisonnables.

Elle est aussi similaire à la prière prononcée à l’ouverture des séances de la Chambre des communes et celle d’un conseil municipal ontarien approuvée par la Cour supérieure de l’Ontario dans Allen v. Renfrew (Corp. of the County), 69 OR (3d) 742; 117 CRR (2d) 280. La Cour conclut qu’

[u]ne personne raisonnable, bien renseignée et consciente des valeurs implicites qui sous-tendent ce concept ne pourrait en l’espèce accepter l’idée que l’activité étatique de la Ville, du fait de cette prière, était sous une influence religieuse particulière.

Dans une sorte d’obiter, la Cour n’en déplore pas moins « l’attitude du maire de la Ville appelante à l’égard de la prière et de ses déclarations publiques intempestives concernant sa foi » (par. 147), notamment le fait qu’il accompagne sa prière d’un signe de croix qui, contrairement au texte de la prière, est manifestement confessionnel, et « qui remet en cause, du moins en apparence, la neutralité religieuse de la Ville et de celle de ses représentants » (par. 150).

***

Ce n’est pas le seul à qui on peut faire des reproches. Les demandeurs (ou leurs avocats) ont mal organisé leur contestation, notamment en omettant de contester la constitutionnalité du règlement encadrant la prière et en retenant les services d’un expert potentiellement biaisé (et aux qualifications académiques modestes). Mais, surtout, c’est la Cour elle-même qui paraît mal dans cette affaire. Son jugement est très faible, tant sur le plan de la technique juridique qu’au niveau des principes.

Au niveau de la technique, le traitement de la preuve par la Cour ― son rejet de l’expertise présentée par les intimés, sur laquelle s’était appuyé le tribunal des droits de la personne, et son acceptation des prétentions des experts des appelants ― me paraît très douteux. Un tribunal qui siège en révision judiciaire ne peut normalement ré-évaluer la preuve de cette façon. Certes c’est la norme de contrôle de la décision correcte qui s’appliquait aux questions juridiques en cause, mais l’appréciation de la preuve relève néanmoins du tribunal administratif, en l’occurrence le Tribunal des droits de la personne. Sa décision ne peut être écartée que si elle est déraisonnable, et la Cour, selon moi, ne démontre pas qu’elle l’est, du moins en ce qui concerne l’expertise des appelants. Cette expertise souffre d’ailleurs d’un sérieux problème que la Cour passe sous silence, en ce que les passages cités dans le jugement me semblent proposer des conclusions juridiques (quant à la conformité de la prière à la Charte) qu’un expert doit se garder de formuler, puisqu’il s’agit du domaine réservé au juge.

Ce qui est plus grave, toutefois, c’est que le jugement ne discute ni de l’arrêt de principe de la Cour suprême sur la liberté de religion en général et la neutralité de l’État en particulier, R. c. Big M Drug Mart Ltd., [1985] 1 R.C.S. 295 ni d’un important arrêt de la Cour d’appel de l’Ontario sur la question de la prière dans les écoles, Zylberberg v. Sudbury Board of Education, 65 OR (2d) 641; 52 DLR (4th) 577. (Il est, selon moi, remarquable, et déplorable, que les intimés n’aient pas fait allusion à cet arrêt dans leur mémoire. Du mauvais travail des avocats ― ce qui n’excuse pas pour autant le silence de la Cour.) La Cour s’appuie aussi sur des jugements concordants et des obiters dans d’autres arrêts, sans pour autant discuter des éléments essentiels de cette jurisprudence (c’est le cas, notamment, de l’arrêt Freitag v. Penetanguishene (Town), 47 OR (3d) 301; 179 DLR (4th) 150.

Or, une réflexion sur la portée de cette jurisprudence aurait permis à la Cour de mieux apprécier les principes en cause. De se rappeler que, comme le dit la Cour suprême dans Big M, et comme le rappelle la Cour d’appel de l’Ontario dans Freitag, une atteinte à la liberté religieuse (ou à tout autre droit) peut résulter non seulement de l’effet, mais aussi de l’objectif d’une mesure gouvernementale, si bien que les intentions manifestement religieuses du maire Tremblay sont pertinentes et même décisives dans ce litige. De se rappeler aussi, comme dit toujours la Cour suprême dans Big M, que l’objectif d’une mesure gouvernementale ne peut pas changer ― une mesure adoptée pour des motifs religieux demeure religieuse. De comprendre que, comme le souligne la Cour d’appel de l’Ontario dans Zylberberg, une prière récitée par les représentants de l’État impose bel et bien la croyance à des non-croyants, et qu’avoir à quitter une salle où un représentant de l’État prie dans l’exercice de ses fonctions, c’est être contraint à manifester son incroyance. De réaliser que, comme l’a rappelé la Cour d’appel de l’Ontario dans Zylberberg et Freitag, l’histoire, la tradition, n’est pas une justification adéquate en droit constitutionnel canadien, et que même les pratiques historiquement ancrées doivent être évaluées à la lumière d’une compréhension moderne des principes en cause. (À cet égard, le fait que la Cour s’appuie sur une décision de la Cour suprême des États-Unis justifiant la constitutionnalité d’une prière dans une assemblée législative par la compréhension de la liberté religieuse qui prévalait en 1787 est choquant. Cette approche a systématiquement été rejetée en droit canadien.)

Il ne s’agit pas pour autant d’évacuer la religion de l’espace public au nom d’une supposée « laïcité intégrale ». Il n’est certes pas question de retirer la croix du drapeau du Québec (ou de celui de six autres provinces canadiennes). Cependant, entre un drapeau qui est véritablement l’artefact du passé et une prière renouvelée chaque jour il y a toute une différence. J’ai soutenu, l’an dernier, que la neutralité de l’État n’exigeait pas qu’on force les fonctionnaires à cacher leur appartenance religieuse. Or, ce n’est pas de cela qu’il s’agit. Le maire Tremblay est effectivement libre de se proclamer chrétien sur la place publique. Il ne s’ensuit pas qu’il l’est d’invoquer Dieu dans l’exercice de ses fonctions (voir, à ce sujet, Freitag, au par. 12), pas plus que, disons, une juge, si elle est libre de porter le hijab, ne l’est de dire à un justiciable qu’elle rend justice au nom d’Allah.

Au delà, cependant, des principes juridiques et philosophiques, la décision de la Cour défie la langue française et la logique. Prétendre qu’une prière invoquant « Dieu tout puissant » n’est pas un acte religieux qui va directement à l’encontre de la neutralité de l’État, alors que même les experts des appelants la décrivent comme « théiste », c’est surréaliste, idiot ou hypocrite.

Il ne reste qu’à espérer une intervention de la Cour suprême dans ce dossier. (Je ne sais pas, cependant, si M. Simoneau et le MLQ ont l’intention de s’adresser à elle.) Ce gâchis mérite un gros benchslap.

Religious Freedom Is (a) Right

The Globe’s Doug Saunders has produced a very unfortunate op-ed this morning, arguing that “religious freedom” is at best redundant, at worst positively harmful, and that Canada should not be in the business of promoting it. The occasion for his outburst is the upcoming creation of the Office of Religious Freedom within the Department of Foreign Affairs. That may well be a poor idea, even a sop by the government to religious conservatives. Even if Canada should be in the business of promoting individual rights abroad, there is no reason why religious freedom should be privileged over other fundamental liberties. Yet Mr. Saunders’ arguments are confused and go too far. It is one thing to say that the Office of Religious Freedom is a bad idea; it is another to claim, as he does, that “religious freedom” is either a useless concept or a slogan for religious bigotry and repression.

Mr. Saunders points out that “[t]he phrase ‘religious freedom’ is evoked [sic―I wonder if he meant ‘invoked’]” by all manner of intolerant groups who, in fact, want the state to repress other religious groups with whom they disagree. He argues that “the most important religious freedom is freedom from religion”―the freedom not to have someone else’s religion imposed on you by the state. As for the freedom of belief and worship, it is sufficiently “protected in constitutional freedoms of speech, thought, conscience, assembly and basic equality.” The additional category of “freedom of religion” is hopelessly vague and in any event unnecessary. Indeed, says Mr. Saunders,

the core values of our common culture, the things that make us Western and modern – democracy, equality, the rule of law – were forged through the rejection of religion and the overthrow of spiritual authority.

If there’s anything we should be doing abroad, he concludes, it’s ensuring the separation of church and state. Not fighting for “religious freedom,” whatever that means.

One wonders whether Mr. Saunders has seriously engaged with what has been said and written about religious freedom in the last 300-odd years. His claims about the history and meaning of religious freedom are badly mistaken.

Start with the history. It is not the case that democracy, equality, and the Rule of Law developed in opposition to religion. Arguably the most influential defender of such values was also one of the first great champions of religious freedom―John Locke. So were the American Founders. It would have been much more accurate to say that these values developed in parallel, indeed that religious freedom was historically the first individual freedom. The sovereignty of the individual was first asserted in matters of faith, well before it was thought of asserting it in the realm of politics too.

Now to the meaning of “religious freedom”. Like that of any other individual right, it can be said to be vague. It is not exactly clear what “freedom of expression” means, or “equality”, or “liberty”. That said, it is indisputable that freedom of religion has a negative aspect―that it is, among other things, a right not to have the faith of others imposed on you. The very first Supreme Court case dealing with freedom of religion, R. v. Big M Drug Mart Ltd., [1985] 1 S.C.R. 295, was about that. Other rights, by the way, have a similar “negative” aspect―freedom of speech, for instance, is (or should be, notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s decisions to the contrary) not just the freedom to say what you want, but also the freedom not to say what the government wants you to say. That doesn’t detract from the importance of the “positive” side of the right. In the case of religion, we might speak, following the U.S. First Amendment, of the “free exercise” of religion, to go along with non-establishment. And free exercise of religion is not reducible to the other rights on which Mr. Saunders wants to rely for its protection (except maybe freedom of conscience, but this happens (unfortunately) to be poorly theorized and, insofar as it has a modicum of clear meaning, it refers to a protection for specifically non-religious conscientious beliefs). For example, the Sikh boy who felt a religious duty to wear a kirpan to his public school wasn’t exercising a right to free speech (his kirpan was hidden inside his clothing, he wasn’t displaying it to send a message to anyone), or freedom of association (it wasn’t about his right to associate with coreligionists, or anyone else for that matter). It was straightforwardly a claim of religious freedom―a claim, in Lord Acton’s words, “to be unhindered by man in the fulfillment of duty to God.”

That such claims by others can be abusive or self-serving does not mean that we should renounce our commitment to religious freedom. Whether it is a good idea to single it out for promotion abroad is an entirely separate question.

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.