Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

110: Jocelyn MacLure & Charles Taylor Part III:
Secularism and Freedom of Conscience; The Place of Religion in Public Space

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

The authors believe that by separating conceptually the moral aims of secularism (equality of respect and freedom of conscience) from the operation modes (separation of religion from state and the neutrality of the state towards religion) better clarity can be seen in cases where there is religious accommodation tension. However the authors also caution that this better clarity is not perfect clarity and that the particular facts of every case are paramount to making the best decision. “…the proposed conceptualization may prove to be a good guide or a productive heuristic for societies facing dilemmas that call into question the place of religion in the public space or citizens’ freedom of conscience.”

First, let’s consider the wearing of religious symbols by state officials. In the authors’ conceptualization “The state’s religious neutrality demands that public institutions favor no religion, not that the individuals who frequent these institutions privatize their religious affiliation.”

The question of whether state officials can wear religious symbols is an easy “no” if you believe that the aim of secularism is emancipation from religion or social integration under a new secularism. However, because for the authors these two aims are not legitimate today, the answer is more nuanced. “…the prohibition on public officials wearing religious symbols bears a cost, namely, the restriction of the freedom of conscience and of religion of the person concerned or that of equal access to jobs in the public sector…. Although the appearance of neutrality is important, we do not believe it justifies a general rule prohibiting public officials from wearing conspicuous religious symbols. What matters, above all, is that such officials demonstrate impartiality in the exercise of their duties.” There is not any evidence that people who display religious symbols are somehow less able to act impartially than people who do not display religious symbols. In fact is seems quite easy to test people’s ability to act impartially without restricting their freedom of conscience.

Although there should not be a general rule prohibiting the wearing of religious symbols there should also not be a general rule granting permission. “Our position does not mean, however, that the wearing of all religious symbols by all public officials must be accepted. Rather, it implies that wearing a religious symbol should not be prohibited simply because it is religious. Other reasons may justify the prohibition...” The requirements of education, the authors believe, would legitimate the prohibition against wearing a burqa or niqab as a teacher in a class room but not the hijab. Additionally, some professions such as judges, police officers and prison guards who have the right to exercise force and punishment could legitimately be held to higher standards in displaying neutrality than the average state official. (Q1)

Second, let’s consider religious heritage. If you feel that there is a “war on Christmas” you may feel too much accommodation is being given to political correctness or fear an over secularization of society. (Q2) the authors describe this feeling as a “sense of iniquity” having to do with “the perceived asymmetry between what is required of members of the majority and what is required of the minority groups.” What is the place of religious heritage in a secular society? Again if you believe in the principle aims of emancipation and/or social integration then all religious heritage must come down or be eliminated. However the authors disagree: some religious heritage is legitimate to keep.

“An adequate conception of secularism must seek to distinguish what constitutes a form of establishment of religion from what belongs to a society’s religious heritage….some practices or symbols that may have originated in the religion of the majority do not truly constrain the conscience of those who are not part of that majority.” (Q3) (Q4)

The key is not whether something or some practice is religious or not. Rather two questions need to be asked: does it prevent the exercise of anyone’s freedom of conscience? And, if so, can a reasonable accommodation be made to ensure the free exercise of conscience? If not, then very likely whatever the case may be it is not worthy of being kept on the grounds of religious heritage. “But it is necessary to keep practices that do constitute a form of identification on the state’s part with a religion – usually that of the majority – form being preserved on the pretext that they now have only a heritage value.” (Q5)

Quebec, being the authors’ home province, has had a rich history of religious accommodation that they respect and value. Concerning religious education the authors believe that Quebec did the correct thing in eliminating direct and preferential Catholic and Protestant religious education in public schools and replacing it with an Ethics and Religious Culture curriculum designed to give students “the knowledge they will need to understand religion and its varied manifestations in Quebec and elsewhere and to develop the skills necessary to peacefully coexist within a diverse society…” (Q6)

(Q1) How do you feel about Sikh RCMP officers being allowed to wear turbans but Christians not being allowed to wear crosses? I believe the authors would approve because the facts on the ground are that Christians are an old source of oppression for some marginalized groups and Christian symbols continue that connotation. Sikh religious symbols do not have any such connotations in Canada and as such the state does not appear from the point of view of any minority or marginalized community to be siding with former oppressors. How does this logic sound to you?

Q2 How do you feel about the “war on Christmas”? Is saying “happy holidays” or “season’s greetings,” too much of an accommodation?

Q3 The authors identify 1) the Lord’s Day Act, 2) requiring the recitation of prayer before the beginning of municipal council, 3) requiring the use of a bible to swear an oath and 4) the crucifix above the Speaker’s chair in the Quebec National Assembly as examples of practices that had (or should have had) to go. Do you agree or could we find some form of accommodation?

Q4 The authors identify 1) the cross on Mount Royal in Montreal, 2) the Gregorian calendar, 3) and most statutory holidays (as long as work places allow for members of other faiths flexibility on choosing days off) as acceptable religious heritage. Do you agree?

Q5 Ontario has four school boards: English-Catholic, French-Catholic, English-public, and French-public. Given their criteria this system is clearly a legacy and part of our heritage. Does this system infringe on the freedom of conscience of anyone? And if so, can a reasonable accommodation be made? Should Ontario keep our four school boards?

Q6 How do you feel about the Quebec model? Would you support its adoption in Ontario? Are the facts on the ground different in Ontario?

© 2008 - 2017, James Jeff McLaren