Iain Benson

Iain Benson

August 27, 2012

A religious freedom expert warns the Parti Quebecois leader's proposed Charter of Secularism would violate Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms and push many religious believers out of the public service.

"Religions in Quebec have rights and one of these rights is not to be forced out of the public sphere by the beliefs of atheism and agnosticism dominating the public," said Iain Benson.

Benson, a constitutional lawyer and international religious freedom expert, said he was "startled" by PQ Leader Pauline Marois's proposed Charter of Secularism.

The charter would prohibit government employees from wearing of religious symbols such as hijabs, kirpans (ceremonial daggers required by Sikhs), turbans and kippahs (or yarmulke, the skullcap worn by Jewish men).

The charter, which seems to be a work in progress, would, however, allow the wearing of an unobtrusive crucifix.

If implemented, he said, the charter would exclude those who have an orthodox, traditional understanding of their faith from working in the public sphere, Benson said in an email interview.

However, everyone, including secularists, has a belief system, he said. Not wearing religious symbols indicates what one does not believe just as wearing them shows what one does believe.


Marois later clarified the crucifix in the National Assembly could also remain because it is part of Quebec's heritage.

Marois is not alone in her support for the crucifix or other Christian symbols as a nod to Quebec's past. Other leaders also chimed in to support it, including Liberal Premier Jean Charest.

Previously the Quebec National Assembly voted unanimously to keep the crucifix above the speaker's chair despite a recommendation that it be removed by the commission which investigated religious accommodation in the province.

Quebeckers go to the polls Sept. 4, but Catholic bishops will not be weighing in on the issue, if at all, until later in September.


The Quebec bishops have the matter on the agenda for their upcoming meeting, said a spokesman for the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Quebec and no statement will be issued before then.

AECQ president Rimouski Archbishop Paul-Andre Fournier has issued a pastoral letter urging Catholics to exercise their right to vote and to reflect seriously on the issues in light of Gospel values.

Said Benson: "The Catholic bishops have a difficult time in Quebec, owing to historical over-reach by certain Catholics in the past when the Church was so dominant. This has left a very deep and lingering resentment in that province."


He urged religious leaders of all faiths to be more vocal in defence of religious freedom and critical of secularism as "an anti-religious ideology."

"Quebec seems confused about the fact that the better understanding of 'secular' or 'public' is that it is or ought to be inclusive of all citizens, religious or non-religious," he said.

Benson said moves to remove Christian prayers from legislatures while keeping the crucifix seems to imply that the crucifix is as empty of cultural significance as McDonald's golden arches.

"The crucifix continues to speak and just isn't of the same sort of cultural 'relic' as Athena or Thor and has relevance well beyond culture."

History has shown iconoclasts have always tried to tear down the religious relics of previous eras, he said.

Benson does support bans on partial or full face-coverings for those dealing with the public or receiving public services.

"Where we are involved in working in the public sphere I believe all citizens have a right to see the face of other citizens," he said. They should be able to see whom they are dealing with.