Quebec Nationalists: Teachers Shouldn't Wear 'Religious Signs,' But a Crucifix Hanging in the Legislature Is OK

The Coalition Avenir Quebec claims the crucifix hanging in the National Assembly isn't a religious symbol.


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The ethnic-nationalist party about to take power in Quebec wants to ban many government employees—including teachers—from wearing religious symbols to work. But the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) has no problem with one glaring religious symbol currently hanging in the provincial legislature.

The party's platform states that "religious signs will be prohibited for all persons in position of authority, including teachers." Incoming Premier François Legault has echoed that sentiment, saying, "I think if we compare to what's happening in many countries, it's reasonable for neutrality reasons—we want to make sure that a policeman or a policewoman doesn't show a religious sign in case the man or woman in front of him is from another religion."

The proposal's critics argue that it's an unconstitutional violation of freedom of religion. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for one, says he doesn't want the state to "tell a woman what she can or cannot wear." But if the proposed ban is found unconstitutional, Legault has suggested deploying the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom, which permits provincial legislatures to override a court's decision on what is and is not constitutional.

Count me with the critics. The CAQ says it wants to ensure "the secularity of the state," and that's a worthy goal: Separation of church and state—and mosque and state, and synogogue and state—is certainly a good thing. But this ban would simply prohibit workers whose religions require them to wear certain clothing (like kippahs for Jewish men and hijabs for Muslim women) from being able to do so.

Plus, the party's stance is more than a little hypocritical.

For more than 80 years, a crucifix has hung above the speaker's chair in Quebec's legislature, the National Assembly. One might think that a party eager to secularize the state would call for the crucifix's removal. But the CAQ insists that this cross is a cultural symbol, not a religious one. "We have to understand our past," Legault told reporters this week. The French Catholics and British Protestants who settled the province "built the values we have in Quebec," he said. "We have to recognize that and not mix that with religious signs." A CAQ spokesperson tells The Globe and Mail that as a "heritage object," the crucifix is "part of our history" and thus shouldn't be removed.

That crucifix may indeed be an important symbol of Quebec's history. But there is no coherent way to claim that it isn't any less religious than the crucifixes, kippahs, and turbans worn by various public employees. And it looks a lot more like an official endorsement.