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Stand strong in the public square

As the religious accommodation debate heats up, Christian voices cannot be silent

Recently the Parti Québécois allegedly drew on a widespread fear of Muslims in Quebec to garner support for stringent (one is tempted to use the word ridiculous) measures directed against people of all faiths that would see, among other things, a ban on public servants wearing obvious symbols of their faith (eg. large crosses, turbans, veils).

At the same time, across the border in Ontario, a professor at York University has gone public with a dispute in which his superiors granted accommodation to a “religious” student who refused to work with female classmates (as far as I can tell, the student’s religion has not been disclosed).

Both examples underscore the serious identity crisis that Canada is experiencing with respect to the accommodation of rights and freedoms as guaranteed in the Charter. Both have more in common with the other than is at first apparent.

Both assume, incorrectly, that the State can be neutral “all the way down” with respect to religion. It cannot. Either it becomes a quasi-religion itself, intolerantly demanding conformity to ridiculous levels (Quebec), or it runs into an equally ridiculous paralysis when faced with what seems to be a situation with a glaringly obvious solution (York).

Christians have learned through their history that the State cannot be religiously neutral simply because human beings are not religiously neutral. We are driven to worship something, whether that is God or something considerably more mundane. Indeed, in our early days, Christians were called atheists because we would not worship the right gods. It was never a question of whether one could, should, or would worship.

It is from this basis that Christians should offer input into just what reasonable accommodation looks like.

Given that there are “many gods and many lords,” to quote the Apostle Paul, who vie for peoples’ affections, how can we empower, advise, and debate with our politicians as they seek to balance all these competing claims in a society that is well governed and peaceable? If Quebec’s example is too heavy-handed and York’s too lenient, is there a middle way?

I believe there is a middle way to be found, and Christians should be at the forefront of the search for it and expression of it. Christians should be applauding those Muslims who rightly point out that full veils are not, in fact, an essential part of Islamic faith, but reflect the concerns of only one small branch thereof. Some Muslims have argued that one can be Muslim and opposed to veiling in places such as courts of law where an accused has the right to face his or her accuser or during the swearing of an oath.

To reject a veil in certain circumstances is neither an affront to multiculturalism nor a legitimate reason to ban all religious adornment for public service workers.

At the same time, we should be supporting the York University professor who rightly insists that because women are entirely equal human beings, they should be able to study alongside their male colleagues without separation. Further, if a student cannot reconcile him- or herself to such a view, that student remains free to study at a private institution where such views are welcome, or free to study abroad where such views may be accepted.

If Christians (and other religious minorities) relinquish the public square as the debate for reasonable accommodation of religious symbols and practices heats up, some sort of heavy-handed solution is the only result. One in which Quebec’s values charter, or something like it, enshrines myopic intolerance, or another in which the properly secular State refuses to defend its own values and so cedes the public square to whomever shouts loudest. Both would pose disastrous consequences for minorities, whether Christian or otherwise.

Christians cannot afford to cede the field, or indeed, to give up on reason in this very important debate.

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About the author

ChristianWeek Columnist

Tim Perry is rector at Church of the Epiphany in Sudbury, Ontario. He blogs about theology, religion, politics and sometimes the blues at