Nowhere in Canada is the separation of church and state more highly valued than in Quebec. But a new proposal by the Quebec Council on the Status of Women, a provincially appointed body that advises the government on issues related to women, would take this separation to absurd levels. If adopted, it would result in a gross curtailment of religious freedoms - freedoms that, in most cases, have no bearing on gender equality whatsoever.
Preparing for a presentation before Quebec's Bouchard-Taylor commission on the "reasonable accommodation" of minorities, the council recently laid out six recommendations aimed at giving priority to gender equality over religious freedom. Some of these, notably greater civic education in grade schools, are sensible. Others, such as the inclusion of common values in documents distributed to newcomers to Quebec, are worthy of further examination. But the council's proposal to bar public employees (among them civil servants, teachers and medical workers) from wearing "ostentatious" religious symbols is deserving of contempt.
It is no mystery what underlies the proposal. The council is primarily concerned with burkas or niqabs - especially the prospect of Muslim teachers wearing the face-covering garments. In a statement, it suggested that the niqab "sends a message of the submission of a woman, which should not be conveyed to young children as part of a secular education that is required to promote equality between men and women."
While Quebec is hardly under siege from an army of niqab-clad teachers, this argument is not entirely without merit. Had it been made on its own, it could at least have generated some worthwhile debate. But in its effort to target the most hard-line segment of the Muslim population - a small minority within a small minority - the council has levelled a broad attack against all religions. If its proposal were adopted, only religious paraphernalia easily obscured by clothing (such as necklaces with small crosses or Stars of David) would be allowed.
The council argues that gender equality should take priority over
religious freedom. That's a debatable point, but in most of these cases it is also moot. What possible threat to equality do Jewish men in yarmulkes, Sikhs in turbans or Muslim women in hijabs - the inoffensive head scarves that cover neither face nor body - pose to equality?
Quebeckers cannot live in fear of any overt sign of religion; nor should they strive for a homogeneous society in which all cultural differences are banished from public view. But that is what the council seems to want. The willingness of a government-appointed
organization to force large swaths
of the population out of public
institutions, all to limit an alleged threat from a few women, speaks volumes about a "reasonable accommodation" debate that has gone too far.