THE BLOG
10/24/2013 04:20 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

What Quebec's Battle Over Religious Symbols Can Teach Americans About Church-State Separation

In Quebec, according to the Parti Quebecois, you can wear a modest cross to your job as a judge, but not a kippah; you can wear a beard, but not a hijab. This past Sunday afternoon, my new congregation, Temple Emanu-el Beth Sholom, the oldest Reform synagogue in Montreal, hosted a symposium on the hotly debated and divisive "Charter of Quebec Values" that brought together religious leaders and public intellectuals from a range of perspectives. The Charter under discussion, a product of the Parti Quebecois (hereafter referred to as the PQ), proposes that all employees of public facilities (such as courts, government offices, schools, etc.) refrain from wearing religious dress or symbols. Clothing in the banned category ranges from hijabs to kippahs to turbans to 'ostentatious' crosses - though small ones are just fine.

A little context: a huge gold crucifix hangs over the speaker's chair in Quebec parliament. But Pauline Marois, leader of the PQ, has claimed on the CBC French language program Tout le Monde en Parle that, well, that's different. "The [crucifix] is part of Quebec heritage. It should stay." History attests it's not just about a 'secular' Quebec heritage, though: the crucifix was installed in 1936 by Premier Maurice Duplessis to emphasize that the Quebec government was "guided by the hand of God." So Marois' argument is equal opportunity offensive: either she doesn't think crucifixes are really religious or she's simply trying to persecute minority faiths. According to this logic, you can wear a modest cross to your work as a public servant but not a modest hijab; it's easy to see who's under attack.

What the PQ is clear on is this: the charter, they claim, maintains the secularism of the state and protects against the possibility of "threatening religious neutrality". As a clergyperson from a minority faith community it's hard to take issue with these concerns. The separation of church and state is, after all, what protects my faith, and that of millions of others like me. But as Prof. Daniel Weinstock of McGill's Faculty of Law pointed out at Sunday's symposium, the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution and the Canadian Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms were originally intended to prevent precisely this kind of legislation, and to protect minority faiths. They were never intended to punish or marginalize them. But that's exactly what banning a woman in public service from wearing a hijab or a man from wearing a kipah does: they punish people for difference, for how they do not conform to an imagined cultural norm of what it means to be "Canadian" or "American." And since public employees are symbols of what the majority culture embraces, values and condones, it matters very much to the rest of us what these employees are allowed to wear.

Last week, Quebec's human rights commission ruled on the charter, stating: "It is unreasonable to presume the partiality of a public sector worker by the simple fact that he or she wears a religious symbol." Which reinforces that the charter is not about preserving secularism, the impartiality of government workers, or the separation of church and state. It is about prescribing a majority identity that is xenophobic, Islamophobic and sees multiculturalism and difference as a threat. It is about preserving and prescribing a majority cultural identity that is increasingly threatened in a province at once more diverse and open than ever before to immigrants from French speaking Muslim countries (immigrant communities once valued by the PQ precisely for their ability to maintain Quebecois culture through French language.)

As post-9-11 Americans, we know all too well that there's often a thin line between the separation of church and state and the infringement of rights we would otherwise take for granted; it's not easy to preserve individual rights while protecting religious groups. The U.S. Supreme Court has struggled with the rights of religious groups to hire and fire according to their own beliefs, and to allow religious communities to use intoxicants (otherwise considered illegal) for religious rituals. But there's a reason for that. We are the inheritors of governments that knew the protection of individual religious expression was far too important, and too dangerous, to let slide. This is why so many of our European and Middle Eastern ancestors came to Canada and America in the first place. It is why my own paternal great-great grandparents, fleeing Russian pogroms in the 1890s, came to Montreal. I imagine them arriving in Quebec in their kipot and prayer shawls, the men in beards, the married women with their hair covered. I imagine them quietly, gently breathing a sigh of relief, the weight of so many centuries of persecution lifting from their shoulders. They have finally come home. Where, for the first time in their lives, for the first time in Jewish history, they are free to be Jews and full citizens of a nation. They don't have to choose. For this, they are grateful. For this, they have given up everything they have ever known, to begin again. To remain Jews. To become Canadians.