MONTREAL, Quebec — Last fall, the Canadian province of Quebec passed legislation, Bill 62, that would make it illegal for anyone to receive public services if they did not show their face. Dubbed as a “religious neutrality” law, critics claimed the bill discriminated against Muslims who wear headscarves as a part of their religious practice — and should be cause for concern for all people of faith.
In recent months another controversy has brewed over Canada’s summer jobs program — a popular funding initiative for businesses and organizations to hire students during summer break — when the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that in order to receive funding, you must attest to supporting abortion rights in Canada. Last month, a group of Jewish, Catholic, and Muslim leaders joined together in protest of the decision and called on the government to reverse its policy.
In an interview with Crux, Archbishop Christian Lépine of Montreal said he feared both the example of Bill 62 and the Canadian Summer Jobs program are moving the country in the direction of relegating people of faith to “second-class citizens.”
CRUX: Bill 62 — which requires that people who receive public services to show their faces — will most concretely affect Muslims who wear the niqab or a burka if religious accommodations aren’t put into place. What principles of religious liberty do you believe to be at stake here?
Archbishop Christian Lépine: – The clear intention of the law is to affirm freedom of religion and conscience in the name of neutrality of the state. But what is neutrality? Neutrality can be understood — and it’s my understanding of it — that everyone is welcome. You don’t have to hold a particular belief and whatever your belief might be, generally, you are welcome — just as you are, as a person. When neutrality becomes “You’re welcome, but signs of your belief cannot be visible,” is this still freedom? Is this still welcoming? You are welcome, but not in every respect.
If you are a government official or civil servant, you might say that we are serving the goal of neutrality by excluding certain signs. But, in my view, I think neutrality would be better served by saying that everyone, along with their particular signs of belief, is welcome. In which case, pluralism becomes visible; one can see that we’re a pluralistic society. However, if you say we’re a pluralistic society but certain visible signs are not allowed, then pluralism becomes invisible. I don’t believe in a neutrality that excludes people.
Why should Catholics care about this case?
Well, first there is the issue of principle. You can say: “It doesn’t involve us, it’s for others.” But one day, it might be for us.
Another concern is the ripple effect. Laws have a socialization effect, sending signals about what society considers important. If we choose to exclude in the name of neutrality, then, perhaps one day, a person will be waiting in a line to be served — maybe at a drug store or some company — and someone will say: “What are you doing here with your burka or niqab? Go back to your country if you don’t like it here. Get out of the line or remove your sign.” The ripple effect of this law can affect people’s mentality and their capacity to welcome others and their beliefs.
Do you see this as a sign of a diminishing of religious tolerance in Canada?
It is a sign of diminishing freedom of religion and conscience. Some might say it’s not very much, but Pope Francis talks about “polite persecution,” and it could possibly lead to that. I don’t think that is the intention of the law, but if neutrality of the state is used to exclude the public manifestation of certain religious beliefs, somehow, you are moving in the direction of creating second-class citizens.
Do you think Pope Francis has helped build a bridge between interfaith communities in Quebec?
Some, in Quebec, were at work building interfaith bridges before the Second Vatican Council. But after the council, religious leaders and civil society made a conscious effort to do so. Pope Francis certainly helps in this regard with his focus on “a civilization of encounter.” Of course, encounter means encountering those within our own belief system, but it’s also about encountering people of other beliefs and other ways of life.
Speaking of interfaith issues, multiple faith-based groups have come together to protest the government’s changes to Canada’s Summer Jobs program guidelines requiring a pledge of support for abortion rights before receiving federal funding. How did this happen and what’s at stake here?
We need to go back to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which is the model of our Charter of Rights. Not everyone around the table professed the same religious beliefs, philosophy or convictions. There were Christians, but there were also Muslims, atheists, and a Communist regime at the table. After two years of discussion, they had trouble drafting a common declaration regarding the grounds for respecting human rights. So, they made a decision to shift their focus, moving from their own unique starting positions and focusing, instead, on making a solid affirmation of the inherent dignity of every human person. That became the starting point, with each group with their own religions or philosophies justifying it their own way. It wasn’t about using the Declaration to create a belief system to judge other belief systems or to diminish them. It’s about creating a society which includes different belief systems and respects them. It’s not about imposing your belief system on others.
The Charter of Rights is there to protect pluralism and the diversity of religions, beliefs and ways of thinking. It’s not there so I can take my Charter and use it against the beliefs of others. In that sense, I don’t think you can use the Charter of Rights to say “Your beliefs, your ways of thinking are not mine, so you won’t receive any funding from the government.” Abortion is not in the Charter of Rights, so if you want to respect people who hold various beliefs, and if you want to be democratic, you don’t decide who receives funding or not based on matters related to their beliefs.
You mention that Pope Francis has talked about the “polite” persecution of Christians—do you think this is also an example of that?
In the example of the Summer Jobs Program, I would call it a form of exclusion. It says: “You are a part of society, but there are certain aspects of who you are that you should keep private, and we don’t want them to be part of society.” Our Charter of Rights was not made for that; it was made to prevent us from creating second-class citizens.