MONTREAL - The mayor of Saguenay, Jean Tremblay, might be voicing a popular sentiment when he says that old-stock Quebecers have become too compliant in accommodating minority religions while failing to stick up strongly enough for their own beliefs. But he misses a crucial point.
The mayor put forth his argument in response to a ruling by a Quebec Human Rights Tribunal judge last week that ordered a stop to the reciting of a prayer before city-council meetings and the removal of a crucifix and Sacred Heart statue from civic meeting rooms. The point Tremblay misses is that this is not about tolerating religious practices performed, or symbols displayed, by individuals. It’s about asserting secular neutrality in civic spaces and gatherings, which is a desirable modern value and in no way infringes on anyone’s right or ability to practise his or her faith in appropriate venues.
Furthermore, the pressure to end the practice of praying in city council chambers and displaying Christian symbols in civic assembly rooms hasn’t come from religious minority groups. It comes from the eminently de souche Mouvement laique quebecois, and the complaint in the Saguenay case was brought by one Alain Simoneau, who is as native a son of the Saguenay soil as the mayor. What we have here is a quarrel en famille.
Where the ruling can rightly be criticized is the judge’s decision to award the plaintiff $30,000 in damages for the supposed pain the council-chamber praying inflicted on his delicate atheist sensibilities. This is absurd. The tribunal would have done its credibility a favour had it stuck to making the point about the prayers and statuary.
In any case, it shouldn’t have to be left to a judge to rule on such a contentious and fundamental societal issue. This is something that should be taken in hand by elected legislators. Unfortunately, legislators in this province have shied away from the task out of political cowardice, preferring to go after minority practices such as the wearing of niqabs and kirpans. Much as they might agree that civic assembly spaces should be secular areas, they can’t bring themselves, for fear of the potential backlash, to do away with the crucifix that hangs over the speaker’s chair in the National Assembly and are therefore in no position to tell others to remove theirs.
The rationalization that it is a historic artifact not a religious symbol is nonsense. If that’s so, it more rightly belongs in a museum.