Religious garb in a secular society?
In case we're short of explosive topics to feed popular indignation -- vaccination-denial is old-news now -- along comes the latest brush fire: 'Chelsea teacher removed for religious garb!' This incident is certainly stirring imaginations. Let's look at it, but without the outrage and breast-beating.
Québec' National Assembly passed Bill 21 into law three years ago by majority vote. It is one attempt to strengthen the separation of Church and State (secularism), a vital part of any democracy. And it is a law. Pretty basic, right? Three things to remember: 1) this law applies to all -- all! -- religious symbols: crucifix, hijab, yarmulka, even Buddhists' yellow gowns; 2) this law is not an attack on "freedom of religion" but one limiting the use of religious symbols; and 3) the law applies only to positions of moral authority within the government.
In the hand-wringing over the Chelsea teacher's case, all three points get ignored. We are led to believe Law (not Bill) 21 "targets" only muslims and "disadvantaged minorities", and that it applies to anyone working in the government. A Le Droit writer opined last week that school-bus drivers will be forced to remove their kirpans (daggers) or veils.
The objectors claim to be defending "freedom of religion". This point is the most serious -- if true. But since when is wearing certain garments fundamental to religious belief? These are clothing rules -- like school uniforms -- to be aids in one's religious observances -- are they really part of our fundamental relations with a Creator of the Universe? Is God really concerned with what we're wearing? And in which foundational texts of any religion are clothing regulations a founding element of that religion? Rather, aren't they personal or social expressions of our religious beliefs? Where has God actually said He/She wants us to be veiled or armed with a dagger or sporting a flashy gold crucifix?
That seems to me basic. Also basic is this: Law 21 is three years old. Everyone in Quebec has heard of it -- to pretend otherwise is to admit foolishness and an ignorance of the news. These are not qualities we expect of teachers or any public servants. That is certainly true of the school board which hired and placed this teacher. So we should assume this was intended as a disguised test case. But isn't honesty equally an element of every religion? Honesty would remove some of the moral indignation, especially removes the moral claims of the ex-teacher 's assurances that all she wants is the best for her pupils, etc. This is a test case.
Freedom of religion is the freedom to believe what one wishes ... and the freedom to practise these beliefs, when they do not contravene other parts of civil law. And who would be comfortable having their child's teacher wear satanic messages on his shirt? Would we be comfortable dealing with a police officer with Nazi or death-cult tattoos?
There are limits to all rights and freedoms -- even freedom of speech : no shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theatre. A person in moral authority (teacher, police officer, judge) does not have the "freedom" to advertise their spiritual beliefs while on public duty. We can wear what we wish in private; this ex-teacher can wear what she wishes at home or when not on duty.
Balancing individual rights with community obligations or duties is difficult and often contentious, but it must be done. Quebec is trying. Other jurisdictions may claim to separate Church & State, but if there is no means to do so it will not happen. Religions all have demonstrated intolerance of others and a determination to impose their beliefs -- when they can. Look at today's religious crusade to ban abortion across the USA. With a majority on their Supreme Court, and no live commitment to secularism, they are succeeding. Quebec should not go there.
How about a positive contribution on how to balance individual beliefs with community rights and freedoms? "Anything goes" is not an a responsible option.