The hole left by crucifix's removal says much about Quebec today


National Post, 12 July 2019

Perhaps it could be stored beside other relics of Quebec’s past, like religious liberty and a parliamentary tradition of moderation

The crucifix that hung in the National Assembly of Quebec since 1936 was removed on Tuesday. Despite all-party support for the crucifix over the speaker’s chair in recent years, it became untenable in the face of the CAQ “secularism” law, which bans the wearing of religious garb by public sector workers.

Premier François Legault had attempted to have it both ways, arguing that the crucifix was not “religious” but rather a cultural or historical item. It could be religious and cultural and historical, but it was absurd to say it was not religious. Quebec’s Catholic bishops long ago said that the decision about what hung in the chamber was up to the National Assembly but, whatever the decision, the crucifix could not be reduced to a cultural vestige or historical souvenir.

I don’t lament the removal of the crucifix. The empty space above the speaker’s throne is a better representation of Quebec’s public culture today, and much of what transpires in the chamber is at odds with Quebec’s Catholic history in any case. Yet the confusions about the crucifix also illustrate why the Quebec government is floundering on its secularism law.

The premise of the secularism law is that somehow to be in the presence of a visibly religious person acting in a public capacity is cause for offence. If that’s the case with a teacher or police officer wearing religious garb, then the same logic would apparently apply to the National Assembly. So the crucifix had to go.

But the premise is wrong. The religious identity of another is not a cause for offence; there is no right not to be in the presence of religious people. Good manners and genuine pluralism mean that we can even be in the presence of others offering public prayers that we don’t give internal assent to. That happens at city councils where prayers are offered, in parliamentary chambers or, increasingly, at public events when Indigenous invocations are offered, some of which are Christian and some of which are pantheistic.

It is not impossible to have genuine pluralism that also acknowledges the religious component of the culture and heritage of a particular people. Thus the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on “reasonable accommodations” was wrong to recommend 10 years ago that the crucifix be removed on its own merits. However, if religious expressions in public life are being banned more generally, then it would be inconsistent to keep the crucifix.

“The ideal of society where no visible public signs of religion would be seen — no crosses around necks, no sidelocks, turbans or veils — is a politically dangerous one,” said Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 2006. “It assumes that what comes first in society is the central political ‘licensing authority,’ which has all the resources it needs to create a workable public morality.”

Quebec’s political culture tends to favour a large, expansive state, which gets into regulating language and education and childcare and culture. The totalitarian temptation is ever lurking. In healthy politics, the presence of the crucifix would remind legislators that their authority is not ultimate, that their governance is limited, and their decisions are under judgment. But as the secularism law itself shows, and the attendant debates about it over the past several years, the political culture of Quebec is not healthy.

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