Commentary | Quebec secularism, the crucifix, and the infamous historical argument

The context of Quebec’s secularism policies

Religion in the public space: a controversy
In the last decade, the Western world has struggled with freedom of religious expression in the public sphere, with the controversy being particularly vigorous in Quebec. Discontent about “reasonable accommodations” in regard to religious freedoms led to the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, debate in the political arena, the decision in Simoneau v. Tremblay, and most recently, the Charter of Secularism proposed by the Parti Québécois (PQ).

The historical backdrop, examined below, shows the complexity of the issue at hand – the presence of the crucifix in the National Assembly – and how the various pros and cons are interpreted by each party.

History of the political debate
On February 8, 2007, Jean Charest, then premier of Quebec, announced the creation of the Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences (the Bouchard-Taylor Commission). The Commission was formed in response to the “reasonable accommodation” crisis – that is, the public outrage engendered by the volume of cases of cultural “accommodations” for minority groups reported in mass media.

Only a couple of weeks later, the elections started and the crucifix in the National Assembly became a campaign issue. PQ leader André Boisclair found that, in his view, Quebec secularism militates against the crucifix in the Blue Room. This declaration caused strong reactions in the political class, and not a single politician supported the leader in his will.

The question seemed to be settled when the Commission submitted its report in 2008. The commissioners, Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor, suggested withdrawing the crucifix and placing it in a museum, but the National Assembly disagreed with the proposal. Soon after the submission of the report, the Liberal government filed a motion for the crucifix to remain, since it was deemed a part of the heritage and history of Quebec. The motion was adopted unanimously by the 100 deputies present for the vote.

The 2012 election was the scene of another saga on the subject. Djemila Benhabib, Algerian PQ candidate in Trois-Rivières, spoke out against the crucifix in the National Assembly. Jean Tremblay, mayor of Saguenay, reacted strongly, arguing that as an immigrant, Benhabib should not be entitled to impose her views on the matter. Such a statement was unsurprising from Tremblay, well known for his ‘crusade’ to keep the crucifix and prayer at the City Council of Saguenay.

The decision in Simoneau v. Tremblay
In 2006, Alain Simoneau, a citizen, discussed his discomfort with the crucifix exposed in the room used for Saguenay council meetings, and the prayers preceding the meetings. He faced a flat refusal from mayor Tremblay, and complained to the Quebec Commission of Human Rights and Youth Rights.

Judge Michèle Pauzé, a Chair on the Human Rights Tribunal, settled the debate in 2008 by ordering the City of Saguenay and Mayor Jean Tremblay to remove the crucifix and cease the prayers, citing Simoneau’s right to freedom of conscience and religion, which is protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. According to the judge, the crucifix constrained citizens to the majority religious belief. She also rejected the argument that the crucifix only possessed historical and heritage value.

Mayor Tremblay then decided to appeal the decision. Last May, the Court of Appeal of Quebec overturned the first decision, maintaining that the cross is deprived of religious connotation. For Judge Guy Gagnon of the Court of Appeal, the crucifix represented an historical cultural heritage and “in no way interferes with the neutrality of the City.”

As of August 2013, Simoneau and the Mouvement laïque québécois (Quebec Secular Movement) want the case to be decided on by the Supreme Court of Canada, suggesting that a ruling from the highest court of the country would provide dos and don’ts on state neutrality. The current Quebec government and its Charter of Secularism would, in that case, benefit from such a ruling.

The Charter of Secularism of the Parti Québécois
Despite the recommendation the Bouchard-Taylor Commission came up with, the Parti Québécois continues to advocate for the maintenance of the crucifix at the National Assembly. Current Quebec Premier, Pauline Marois, sees no contradiction with this idea and its Charter of Secularism, which would state that Quebec is officially secular and neutral concerning beliefs or non-beliefs. There was a reasonable accommodation crisis, Marois said, and the solution is for Quebecers to affirm their values. In Saguenay, the mayor would, according to her, be forbidden to begin his council with a prayer, but could keep the religious symbols in place.

The PQ bases its decision on the infamous “historical argument” as well. For Marois, removal of the crucifix from our democratic institution would neglect the role that the clergy played in the emancipation of French Canadians. But many arguments weaken this position.

First, the crucifix was only installed in the Blue Room in 1936 and not in time immemorial. Second, it was a political gesture orchestrated by the Union Nationale, the political party in power at the time. Third, the history of this specific crucifix does not make it a secular icon: Dr. Albiny Paquette himself, credited with affixing the crucifix above the seats, described the gesture as imposing spiritual and religious values ​​on members of Parliament.

On the other hand, a historical argument is accepted in some instances. The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, in Lautsi v. Italy, found this argument compelling. In 2011, it deemed the crosses in Italian public schools were not religious symbols and have only a “passive presence.”

Yet, some would argue that maintaining it is in fact inconsistent with Quebec’s history. The two aforementioned commissioners discussed in their report how religious tolerance has been a feature of Quebec society since 1760, and illustrated the significant difference between religious symbols worn by an individual and those displayed in the very heart of a democratic institution. The PQ’s Charter would go against the grain by promoting a religious symbol in a public space, while prohibiting certain individuals from wearing conspicuous religious symbols.

An Opportunity for the Supreme Court
The controversy in Quebec over the proper place of the crucifix is intense. Arguments are put forward for both sides, but the main issue is whether history can justify its position in the National Assembly. The Bouchard-Taylor Commission suggested that it does not, yet the position of the public and of the government goes the other way. The judiciary did not resolve the dispute, though the Supreme Court of Canada now has the opportunity to rule on the issue. Let us hope the Court grasps this chance, because it would fail to fulfill its constitutional role to protect minorities if it refuses to accept Simoneau’s appeal.


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