Want to read a great story about religious freedom and freedom of conscience?
Want to read a great story about this topic — religious liberty, not “religious liberty” — in The New York Times?
Well, that’s what this post is about. Here’s the headline: “She Wears a Head Scarf. Is Quebec Derailing Her Career?”
How did this story happen?
Well, for starters, it’s about a religious liberty linked to the life and beliefs of a Muslim woman. It’s not a story about white evangelical Protestant cake bakers in USA flyover country or traditional Catholics wrestling with liberal Catholics on some issue of marriage and sexuality.
In other words, this is a religious liberty case that — in terms of readers — pulls together the old left-right First Amendment coalition that existed several decades ago, when you could pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the U.S. Senate and only three people would oppose it. It’s the kind of case that brings American religious conservatives together with liberal activists, attempting to — oh — protect the rights of Muslims in U.S. prisons.
It also helps that this drama is set in Canada and the bad guys are “right-leaning.” In other words, zero Donald Trump-era implications. Here is the overture:
MONTREAL — Maha Kassef, 35, an ambitious elementary schoolteacher, aspires to become a principal. But since she wears a Muslim head scarf, she may have to derail her dreams: A proposed bill in Quebec would bar public school principals, and other public employees, from wearing religious symbols.
“How am I supposed to teach about respect, tolerance and diversity to my students, many of whom are immigrant kids, when the government is asking me to give up who I am?” asked Ms. Kassef, the child of Kuwaiti immigrant parents who worked tirelessly to send her and her four siblings to college.
“What right does the Quebec government have to stop my career?” she added.
Religious minorities in Quebec are reeling after the right-leaning government of François Legault proposed the law last week. It would prohibit not just teachers, but other public sector workers in positions of authority, including lawyers and police officers, from wearing religious symbols while working.
What’s the point here? The Times explains that this proposed law is advocating the brand of radical secularism and church-state separation that has its roots in France.
In other words, we are not talking about a First Amendment debate. One of the challenges in this news story is explaining what life is like in Canada and in some European cultures without the First Amendment clause on the free practice of religious beliefs.
Let me stress: It also helps that this story focuses on laws affecting religious garb and symbolism, a subject that doesn’t directly clash with Times doctrines on the Sexual Revolution.
Thus, readers are told:
At a time when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and cities like New York and London have allowed police officers to wear some forms of religious garb so that they better reflect the communities they serve, some municipal officials, including Montreal’s mayor, Valérie Plante, argued that the law would hamper — rather than improve, as its proponents argue — the integration of minorities.
Beny Masella, the mayor of the suburb of Montreal West, who represents an association of 15 mayors, said he and the other mayors would take issue with being asked to refuse to hire police officers or town clerks because they wore conspicuous religious symbols. He said he would ignore such an interdiction.
“A smart young Sikh with a turban comes into my office and I am supposed to tell him we can’t hire him as a policeman because of his turban?” Mr. Masella asked. “We may lose out on competent employees because of this. This is also a matter of conscience.”
The English Montreal School Board, which administers English-speaking public schools in the city, said it would also defy the bill. “A religious symbol worn by a teacher in no way affects their ability to provide quality education in a secular state,” it wrote in a resolution.
But what if the majority of citizens believe that this strange religious believers are wrong? Can’t the majority back this kind of law, if these religious beliefs and practices make them uncomfortable? That’s a big question, one with striking implications for religious freedom debates in places like Seattle, Colorado and, well, New York.
But back to the big challenge in this story, which is explaining Canada’s approach to religious freedom. Might some of the language in the following passage sound familiar to readers — left and right — in the United States?
As he defended the proposed law, Mr. Legault, the Quebec premier, posted a video over the weekend on his Facebook page in which he said the legislation respected “our history, our values” and was “an approach that a great majority of Quebecers want.” …
Mr. Legault’s approach has come under additional criticism from human rights advocates because in order to fend off legal challenges, he has invoked a rarely used constitutional provision known as the “notwithstanding clause.” That clause, made part of the Canadian Constitution in 1982, enables Canadian legislatures to override basic constitutional rights like freedom of religion and expression to maintain their independence.
Mr. Legault argues that Quebecers will remain free to practice their religions, and that the “notwithstanding clause” is “a legitimate tool.”
Still, Irwin Cotler, a leading international human rights lawyer in Montreal who was Canada’s justice minister and attorney general, called the proposed law a “broad-based assault on liberal values, including the freedom of religion.”
What happens when a civic majority, using the power of the government, attempts to limit the religious-liberty rights of a strange religious minority?
The bottom line: The key issue here is whether an old liberalism — stressing the protection of religious freedom and minority rights — will be trumped by a new brand of liberalism that is interested in controlling ideas and behaviors that are seen as dangerous.
Note this interesting twist, which can also be seen in some U.S. debates:
Public expressions of Muslim identity have been an explosive issue in several European countries, and some defenders of secularism have criticized Muslim head coverings as undermining female empowerment. Similarly, some proponents of the ban in Quebec have sought to frame it as a form of feminist liberation for Muslim women. The preamble to the bill notes that Quebec “attaches importance to the equality of women and men.”
But Quebec’s women’s federation accused the government of “secularizing the oppression of women.” It said the law would ghettoize Muslim women by excluding them from professional and social life.
Fascinating. Read it all.
FIRST IMAGE: Government of Quebec graphic.