Norma Joseph: Don’t tread on my religion


Jewish history is replete with eras of religious restrictions and sanctions. During such times, Jews were not free to practice their religion. In some countries, even if synagogues were allowed, they were hidden, so they would not overshadow the dominant religious edifice of the local mosque or church.

Even after the Enlightenment, many thought it was appropriate to allow Jews to practice and display their distinctive character at home, but not in public. To be seen as Jewish was a negative, a lesser form of citizenship.

The idea of fitting in, of melting pots and assimilation eventually gave way to an appreciation of ethnic diversity. Patchwork quilts were in. Charters defining and defending civil and human rights guided Jews and other religious minorities to expect complete religious freedom in western democracies.

But today, the question of fitting in and religious freedom arises once more.

The day after the Oct. 1 Quebec provincial election, premier-designate François Legault stated that he will pass a law that will forbid public employees from wearing religious symbols. How could he and his incoming Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government implement a law that infringes on the sacred right of religious freedom?

Of course, Legault is claiming to be protecting secularism in Quebec. But what does that mean?

According to the Montreal Gazette: “The CAQ has said the law will apply to police officers, judges, prison guards and elementary and high school teachers, barring them from wearing symbols such as the Muslim hijab or the Jewish kippah on the job.”

Although this is presented as freedom from religion, it’s actually a restriction of religion.

Secularism is a modern approach to political, educational and economic systems, in which the separation of religion and state is accepted policy. This notion is held “sacred” (pardon the term), but is full of ambiguity and confusion. We could list many cases of crossovers between the two realms: swearing on the bible in a court of law, swearing-in ceremonies for presidents using bibles or national holidays on Christmas and Easter.

Let us be clear: both Canada and the U.S. are Christian countries, even though Christianity is not the national religion. Secularism is merely a policy, under which governments and public institutions guarantee that they will not impose religion on the public.

Religious freedom has a twofold proposition: persons are free to practice their own religion, and they are free from religious coercion. In a secular state, one is not forced to practice any religion. But equally, no one is barred from his or her own practice, as long as it does not interfere with public order, security and industry.

Wearing religious symbols is a personal choice and does not, in and of itself, impose a belief on any other person. Absent an accompanying missionary activity, there is no logic to the ban. It appears to be pure prejudice. This is unacceptable, especially coming from a province that has a large crucifix in its national assembly.


We might understand the crucifix as a symbol of the cultural heritage of Quebec. After the Quiet Revolution, certain elements of Catholicism were anathema to Quebecers, but some fragments of it remained as vestiges of a beloved culture. After all, it is difficult to separate religious symbols from historical items. In Israel, secular socialist kibbutzim kept Shabbat and Jewish holidays as their secular celebrations. Accordingly, if the crucifix has its merits in a political institution and is not seen as a forbidden symbol, why not allow a hijab or a kippah.

Individuals see these symbol in their own way – privately, individually. There is nothing here for government to legislate. This bill is illogical and unfounded, given the national assembly’s own behaviour. The government legislates that all Quebec schools are closed for Christmas and Easter. It’s a secular and a cultural thing. Nuns can wear veils and crosses, Jews can wear kippahs and Muslim women can wear hijabs. It’s nobody’s business. Surely not the government’s!