At the recent meeting of the youth wing of the Parti Quebecois, Mme. Pauline Marois announced her government's intention to introduce a ‘Charter of Quebec Values’ intended to enshrine into law the concepts and value around which Quebec will prosper and unite in the 21st century. Prominent among these values is ‘secularism’, a foundational principle of all Western democracies which mandates the separation of church and state. Unfortunately for all concerned, this initiative is rooted in a non-democratic and oppressive understanding of this concept which will serve to weaken the very sense of cultural and political identity that Marois is trying to stimulate.
Secularism is founded upon three essential elements: a) freedom of conscience and belief, b) equality of religious choice, and c) the neutrality of public authorities in religious convictions. Nations traditionally express this in two different ways. Canada, as with most Western democracies, has practiced a ‘liberal/open’ mode of secularism in which the state interprets these principles in a manner that reflects the rights of the individual to express their convictions in the public square without undue hindrance from state authorities. ‘Republican’ secularism on the other hand defines ‘neutrality’ as a mandate to prohibit public expressions of belief – creating a desolate, naked public square where personal equality is created by denying everyone the same right of expression.
To use a sartorial analogy, republican secularism forces everyone to dress the same a la the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution whereas liberal/open secularism would be represented by the full range of western fashion. In both cases everyone is equal in that they are fully clothed but only one permits the full flowering of human creativity and personal expression while the other imposes a false appearance of equality at the expense of personal liberty of belief.
Neither of these modes can function entirely without some legitimate restriction and any state is within its rights to prohibit any act that is deemed to be illegal or harmful. For example, laws prohibiting the practice of animal or human sacrifice are moral and proper irrespective of a practitioner’s religious creed or convictions. Similarly any law that does not respect the rights of individuals to belief (so long as they are not attempting to impose it on others) is equally offensive to the dignity of all citizens. It is not proper or right that a state concerned with the full and free rights of its citizens should impose such a draconian and disrespectful false equality as is threatened by the Quebec Charter of Values. Such an act does not reflect the values or traditions of either that province or our country as a whole because it fails to reflect the actual mode of secularism that has proven to be effective in a modern liberal democracy.