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Nature of religion in a secular society

Haroon Siddiqui - comment - Nature of religion in a secular society

May 29, 2008


You are the warden of a jail. It serves meat-based meals. One inmate, a religious Hindu, wants vegetarian food. So does another, an atheist, who opposes the killing of animals.

Would you deny the first request because it is religious but approve the second because it isn't?

The dilemma is posed in the report of the Quebec commission on reasonable accommodation.

Co-chairs Charles Taylor and Gérard Bouchard discuss the nettlesome nature of religion in a secular society, a topic repeatedly raised during their public hearings.

"The argument that `religion must remain in the private sphere' was often cited. While at first sight it seems clear, this statement is not quite as clear as we may think."

So the two professors proceed to give us a lesson on secularism.

In Turkey, it is anti-religious. "We don't think this is the best system. Since freedom of conscience and religion is one of the purposes of secularism, the state should foster, not hinder, its expression."

Nor is the French model right. It is riddled with contradictions.

Despite laïcité (strict separation of church and state), France funds religious schools, churches and chaplaincy services in schools, hospitals and the army. It observes more Catholic holidays than Quebec. Its only official ceremony for the funerals of presidents is a mass at Notre-Dame Cathedral.

The French also believe that cultural and religious identities impede integration. They forget that "the right to freedom of religion includes the right to show it."

Bouchard and Taylor go further. The display of religion in public spaces, in fact, advances the common good. It compels us to "get to know those of the Other (rather) than deny or marginalize them."

Given all of the above:

Hijab, kippa, turban and kirpan are fine in schools and elsewhere. They do not violate anyone else's rights. The kirpan "has not led to any violent incident in Canada's history" and is but one of many lethal items around (knives, scissors, skates, baseball bats). But since it does raise security concerns, settle for a symbolic or a small kirpan, sheathed and worn under clothing.

The hijab is also fine in "sports competitions if it does not compromise the individual's safety." (The qualifier is not a cover for bigotry in the name of safety, as happened last year at a soccer tournament and a tae kwon do event.)

The eruv (a symbolic boundary that lets observant Jews carry on certain activities on the Sabbath) is fine, "provided it does not inconvenience other people." It doesn't, since it's usually a string along telephone and hydro poles.

Universities and schools should offer temporary space for prayers. Permanent spaces may be needed at "penitentiaries, hospitals or airports, since those there are not free to visit a church."

Requests for non-Christian religious holidays are legitimate.

The more accommodation, the better. "The rejection of certain requests risks producing the effect dreaded, i.e. encouraging certain individuals to withdraw from public institutions and cease to interact with the common culture ...

"The most publicized cases involving Muslims all involved activities where they were participating or integrating into our society."

But the duty of accommodation is not limitless. A request may be rejected "if it leads to undue hardship, such as unreasonable cost, upsetting an organization's operation, infringing the rights of others, or prejudicing the maintenance of security and public order."

Overall, the situation is not out of hand. In Quebec, the number of requests for religious and other adjustments has "remained relatively small," and there's no suggestion that it may get out of control.

As for the jail menu, you as warden better accommodate both requests. "Absolute rigour in the application of legislation and regulations is not always synonymous with fairness." Also, "a treatment can be differential without being preferential."

Haroon Siddiqui's column appears Thursday and Sunday.  

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