On Tuesday, Bernard Drainville, Quebec’s minister responsible for democratic institutions and active citizenship, introduced in that province’s National Assembly the Charter of Quebec Values.

This bill would ban the wearing of visible religious symbols by all government employees while on the job. If passed, this new law will make it illegal for judges, police, prosecutors, public day-care workers, teachers, school employees, hospital workers and municipal personnel to wear at work: kippas, turbans, burkas, hijabs, “large” crosses or presumably Buddhist Mala beads.

According to Drainville, the rationale for this proposal is that,

“If the state is neutral, those working for the state should be equally neutral in their image.”

I do not want to live in a neutral state. I want to live in a respectful state.

In a respectful state, as long as my behaviour does no obvious harm to any other person, the state will do everything in its power to protect my right to freely choose how I decide to live. If I choose to pierce my nose or have my neck tattooed, a respectful state will honour this choice, even if my choice may cause discomfort to another person.

In Drainville’s “neutral state,” protection for government employees is accorded only to those who present themselves as “neutral.” If my deepest-held beliefs dictate that I should not go out in public with my head exposed, a “neutral” state will refuse to protect my right to this harmless choice.

The Parti Québécois’ “neutral” state is not neutral; it is biased toward those who either have no religious practice or whose religious practices can be confined comfortably to the private sphere.

A respectful state does not attempt to hide differences in worldview and practice. In a respectful state, diversity is celebrated and affirmed. Citizens in a respectful state are invited into conversation; we learn together and are enriched by our encounter with different opinions and diverse lifestyles.

The Parti Québécois argues that in a “neutral state,” no one needs to feel coerced by the choices a person in a position of authority may make. It is profoundly disrespectful to suggest that a Sikh wearing a turban at work is attempting to force his religion on another person.

In a respectful state, no one needs to feel afraid of those whose choices may make them appear different from the majority. A respectful society is inhabited with citizens who feel supported enough in their own choices and beliefs that they are able to allow others to follow the practices of their faith or lack of faith.

A child raised in a respectful state will feel empowered to enter into a conversation with her parents by any questions that may be raised if her teacher chooses to wear a hijab in the classroom.

What possible harm could be done to a child who is caused to ask questions because his teacher arrives in class wearing a kippa?

A society is impoverished when the necessity for conversation is curtailed by the pretense that differences do not exist.

In a respectful state, all citizens can feel secure in living the lives they feel compelled to live because they know the state exists to protect their right to choose, within the bounds of respect and safety, the beliefs and practices they desire for their lives. These are things about which no person should be “neutral.”

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this piece originally appeared in the print edition of the Victoria Times Colonist: http://www.timescolonist.com/life/faith-forum-so-called-neutrality-shows-lack-of-respect-1.624288

and is posted on the “Spiritually Speaking” blog at: http://www.timescolonist.com/opinion/blogs/spiritually-speaking-1.61091

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