“Declaration for a Secular Public Service”

by | November 24, 2015

I am a working member of Atheist Freethinkers/Libres penseurs athées. Yesterday, I was notified that the “Declaration for a Secular Public Service” is now

official policy of AFT. It has also been endorsed by Humanist Canada. We appeal to all associations in Canada which support secularism to sign, with the goal of building a pan-Canadian coalition for a secular public service:

We, the undersigned organizations, hereby affirm our support for secularism in the public service of the Canadian federal government and in the public services of all provincial and territorial governments. In particular, we affirm that secularism requires that both the physical structures which house these services and the employees who staff them be religiously neutral and free of religious influence and symbolism. To achieve this, both structures and employees must refrain from displaying any obvious sectarian religious symbols of any kind. By “sectarian” we mean symbols which imply belonging to or adhering to a particular religious community or to the beliefs of a particular religion. Thus, each and every public servant, while on duty, must refrain from any behaviour and from the wearing of any clothing or accessories or ornaments which would clearly identify that individual with a particular religion or religious community. We call this the employee’s obligation of religious restraint.

This obligation of religious restraint would apply only to employees while on duty and not to ordinary members of the public who are the users of public services, nor would it apply to off-duty employees.

This measure is required in order to protect the freedom of conscience of all persons, including both employees of public services and members of the public who are users of such services. Freedom of conscience includes both freedom of religion and freedom from religion and thus involves both the right of religious adherents to practise their religion and the right of non-believers to receive public services from state employees who do not, either by their behaviour or attire, promote religious practices or beliefs, as if such practices or beliefs were endorsed by the state.

The obligation of religious restraint constitutes a reasonable limitation on the freedom of expression of employees while on duty, but it in no way threatens their freedom of religion because it applies only while they are working as public servants. Many employment positions involve certain constraints on dress or behaviour. It is reasonable that a federal, provincial or territorial government, whose duty is to all citizens regardless of their religion, should impose religious neutrality and restraint on their employees in the interest of fairness to the citizens they serve.

There are some who adopt a very limited definition of the term “religious neutrality” involving only behaviour, excluding the clothing or symbols worn. We reject this view because we consider it inadequate and not truly neutral. It is essential that any obvious religious symbols or clothing also be prohibited while employees are on duty because these symbols and clothing transmit a message which would compromise the wearer’s neutrality. For example, some religions, at least in some of their variants, promote gender inequality, homophobia, denial of freedom of conscience or worse. Indeed, religions themselves are generally the most notorious perpetrators of religious persecution, sometimes involving even the criminalization of apostasy. For this and similar reasons, a symbol of a religion whose tenets may be incompatible with fundamental human rights, if worn by an on-duty representative of the state, constitutes a violation of religious neutrality and is tantamount to discrimination against not only atheists and other non-believers, but also against adherents of other religions and even against members of the same religion who may not agree with such tenets.

Another reason for urgency in asserting this obligation of religious restraint is the necessity of dispelling the current toxic atmosphere around the issue of secularism, a toxicity which was promoted and continues to be promoted by opponents of secular legislation proposed by the previous government of Quebec. Indeed, the Charter of Secularism (or, formally, Charter affirming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests) proposed by the Quebec government in November 2013 (and which died when that government was defeated in April 2014) was met with an extremely hostile and dishonest reaction, especially from outside Quebec. This hostility was based mainly on two issues: (1) the party proposing the Charter promotes Quebec sovereignty and (2) the Charter challenged dubious assumptions about religious freedom which are based on so-called “multiculturalism.”

In reality, the Charter contained several provisions which extended the secularization of Quebec society and were largely ignored by opponents. Only the dress code provision—based on the principle of an obligation of religious restraint for public servants while on duty—was seriously controversial as a consequence of the two objections mentioned above. We reject both. Objection (1) is irrational because a good idea remains a good idea regardless of its source. Objection (2) is untenable because it is equivalent to cultural relativism, the false and dangerous ideology which holds that all cultural values are of equal merit.

Furthermore, Quebec law already imposes an obligation of political restraint on public servants. The obligation of religious restraint proposed both by the Charter and by this declaration is an obvious and reasonable extension of that duty. Those who would oppose a rule imposing political neutrality would have to accept public servants wearing any political symbol while on the job, including symbols of totalitarian ideologies.

Those who would accept a ban on political symbols but reject a ban on religious ones would have to provide a practical and workable definition of religion, religious beliefs and religious symbols, in order to explain how religious beliefs can be distinguished from political opinions, and religious symbols from political ones. (For example, if a person believes, for religious reasons, that abortion or homosexuality should be criminalized, or that women who do not wear the Islamist veil are not “pure,” how is that not a political opinion?) Even if one could successfully make such a distinction, how could one justify granting a privilege to religious beliefs, above and beyond what is allowed for political opinions? And given a clear demarcation between religion and politics, how can one justify banning political symbols but not religious symbols worn by public servants while on duty?

Freedom of religion means the freedom to practise the religion of one’s choice in private life or with one’s coreligionists. It does not give believers carte blanche to advertise their religious affiliation while at work in the public service.


Atheist Freethinkers – Libres penseurs athées

Humanist Canada

27 thoughts on ““Declaration for a Secular Public Service”

  1. PatG

    This declaration seems to be skirting around the point. So I’ll ask a direct question: Should civil servants in public facing and non-public facing roles be permitted to wear religiously based head coverings i.e. kippeh, turbans or hijabs?

  2. Dianne Landry

    I’m confused. Is my co-worker of the last 20 years now suddenly going to be expected to remove his turban or face losing his job? What about my co-worker of the past 10 year who ears a hijab? Doesn’t this make us the exact same as the religious fanatics who insist we must wear certain things? I always thought atheists and secularists were supposed to be better that the crazy religious people but things like this make me realize they are exactly the same.

    I understand not preaching or praying but the rest seems over the top and discriminatory.

    1. Tim Underwood

      It would be nice if these people made the adjustment to their working clothes out of a commitment to Canadian Cultural norms: whatever Canadian Cultural norms may mean.

      In the military, a half century ago, young recruits displaying spirited individualism would be challenged by a sergeant, yelling in their face, “YOU WANT TO BE FUCKING DIFFERENT?”.

      I encouraged my immigrant friends, mostly professionals of one sort or another, to spend time exploring the Canadian (mostly North American) dress and linguistic standards. Hell, buy a Skidoo: something I would never do.

      I have relatives who live under the delusion that they inherited something like an English culture, when it is perfectly obvious to any outsider, that an immigrant Asian, graduating from a secular English academy, has much more ingrained English culture than anyone brought up in small town Saskatchewan.

      For anyone who distains this call for an obligation to spend time experiencing our domestic traditions, such as they are, let me say this: why do you think young Canadians should be burdened with disgusting and dangerous military duties to quell goddamn crazy lunatics in their former geographical location? Nobody is asking them to make such a commitment.

      Oh yes, by all means, dump the kippeh. I assume this is the propeller-hat base worn by devout Jews. They are closer to the original monotheism blight than the more recent enthusiasts. Oh yeah, Reformed Judaism already exists: get with the modernizing efforts already in place.

  3. Joe

    “Objection (1) is irrational because a good idea remains a good idea regardless of its source. Objection (2) is untenable because it is equivalent to cultural relativism, the false and dangerous ideology which holds that all cultural values are of equal merit.”

    So much wrong here…

    Even assuming there is a good idea in there somewhere… which is debatable… the pq charter was not an idea, it was a transparent political challenge to the Canadian charter, nothing more. It had nothing to do with secularism and everything to do with repressive nationalism. The classic wolf in sheeps clothing.

    Further, what is described here as cultural relativism, is actually a strawman. Cultural relativism is about understanding culture, not equating, or even judging it:
    “Cultural relativism is the principle that an individual human’s beliefs and activities should be understood by others in terms of that individual’s own culture.”

    Declarations are fun though,I declare myself king of Canada, wooohooo.
    But it has no force of law, much like these attacks on religious freedom would never survive a charter challenge.

    The PQ hates multiculturalism because it implies québécois culture is no more special than any other, and therefore not deserving of special status and protection. True secularism is about not privileging one religion over any others, it is not about bullying religious minorities out of the public sphere/service.

    1. Tim Underwood

      Secularism is not so much about privilege. It is about civics. It is about keeping religious affiliation separate and hidden from civic duties.

      Of course religious cliques will remain secure behind the management doors.

      So it seems that secular dress codes are about secular aesthetics. This should make the public more comfortable and less paranoid about the intrusion of religious gangs into the public service.

      Where religious privilege is fully entrenched, like in our prison system, the ‘magic of faith’ will remain the cure of choice for antisocial behavior. The Federal presence on the Native Reserves (what a horrid concept) will remain adorned with the clerical presence.

      I suppose that these same agents, attired is black denim, would be a small improvement.

      1. Dianne Landry

        I still don’t understand. No one I know is uncomfortable with someone in a turban, hijab or yarmulke. Saying these people can’t wear them if they want to keep their jobs makes us exactly the same as the Taliban who say women must wear a burka. When did atheists and secularists turn into fanatics.

      2. Joe

        Hidden? Where did you pull that out of? I would love to see your source for that.


        Separation of church and state, and a state that remains neutral on religious matters is not the same as forcing religious people into hiding. Secularism and rabid antitheism are not the same thing. I am a secularist, not a religiphobe. In fact secularism is often championed by religious minorities because theocracy is bad for them too. Secularism is not, and never has been state atheism, which is just as oppressive as any theocracy.

  4. PatG

    The charter is taking the wrong approach. It reinforces the idea that certain religious dress signifies a specified position. Now of course right now it does just that. The end goal should not be forcing everyone to dress alike, it should be creating a society where what you wear does not matter, where the signifier has no signified.

    When we tell someone that wearing a hijab/turban/kippeh is wrong, we push them out of our society and encourage them to “stick with their own”. This creates ghettoization. When we tell someone that what they wear doesn’t matter, it promotes assimilation. There are several hijabis who have been in my government unit for a long time. Over the years, two have stopped wearing the hijab and a third keeps her hair up under a net. These three will in turn influence the younger hijabis and perhaps convince them that you don’t need to dress up to practice your religion.

    I would also add that within my white British-anglo lifetime nuns wore full habits, when in public, men were expected and women were required to wear hats and long hair on men or short hair on women was considered to be an affront to proper community values and in some cases a political threat. Further, within the last 100 years, post pubescent women seen outside of the bedroom with their hair down were considered to be whores.

    It has taken western society centuries to get where we are, it is not productive to try force immigrants with 10th century values to adapt overnight. We need to use the carrot not the stick.

    As for full face coverings, they create genuine concerns about security and more importantly accountability and outside of winter weather and the odd protest, should not be allowed in the workplace.

    1. Dianne Landry

      I can agree on the full face coverings. They make me uncomfortable and shouldn’t be worn in a secular workplace. I know that there are days I look at my co-worker in her hijab and think “damn, if I wore that I could skip washing my hair for another day”. Sikh police officers in Toronto wear turbans in the same colours as regular police hats and, I hate to say this, the turbans look better.

  5. David Rand

    Banning religious symbols worn by public servants on duty is somewhat like banning smoking in bars and restaurants — i.e. it is a public health measure. In the case of tobacco, we are dealing with physical health. With religious symbols, it is mental and political health. Just as a smoker must go outside, or wait until the end of his or her shift, before they light up, so too the religious should wait until they leave work before they put on their silly religious advertising. (Except that in the above Declaration, only employees are affected, whereas the smoking ban applies to clients too!)

    It is indeed pathetic to read anti-secular atheists whine in sympathy for those poor religious believers who would be so horribly oppressed by having to respect their job duties. Some people are so habituated to hearing the religious whining and playing the victim that they think it is normal. They have totally assimilated the spoiled discourse of the religious.

    The above Declaration is not about feeling “comfortable” or “uncomfortable” at the sight of a religious symbol. It is about secularism, which means keeping religious advertising out the of public service.

      1. Veronica Abbass Post author

        Why is the focus of many of the comments Muslims?

        Consider the Christian crucifix in various sizes that is worn as a constant signal that the wearer is a Christian.

    1. Corwin

      In the case of tobacco, we are dealing with physical health. With religious symbols, it is mental and political health.

      That’s a badly strained analogy, to say the least. Do you really think anyone’s mental health is going to be damaged by the sight of a hijab or crucifix or whatever? In any case, I think total bans on smoking in bars and restaurants are prissy and needlessly authoritarian, and I’d say the same thing about banning conspicuous religious (or political) symbols in either public or private workplaces.

      It is about secularism, which means keeping religious advertising out the of public service.

      Surely that’s just one form of secularism, and in my opinion a rather repressive one.

  6. PatG

    Canada is not the US. There is no constitutionally based separation between church and state. This is not opinion, it is fact. Frankly I don’t like it much, but that is the current reality.

    There is no public service requirement for secularism yet the vast majority of civil servants I work with keep their beliefs to themselves and the environment is in fact very secular. The most obvious display of identity in my office is not religious but rather by one of my gay colleagues and more power to him.

    Declaring atheist fatwas against articles of clothing isn’t going to help. Leading by example, with education and yes showing a small modicum of tolerance, will.

    1. Veronica Abbass Post author

      “There is no constitutionally based separation between church and state.”

      You are right; however, there is this from Supreme Court Judgment: Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City:

      The state’s duty of religious neutrality results from an evolving interpretation of freedom of conscience and religion. The evolution of Canadian society has given rise to a concept of this neutrality according to which the state must not interfere in religion and beliefs. The state must instead remain neutral in this regard, which means that it must neither favour nor hinder any particular belief, and the same holds true for non-belief.


      1. Dianne Landry

        And yet everywhere you go in Quebec there are crucifixes, including in their legislative assembly. Clearly there is a double standard.

        1. Veronica Abbass Post author

          “everywhere you go in Quebec there are crucifixes”

          No kidding, check out Ontario as well.

          Enough already with crucifix in the legislature. That will go when secularism arrives.

    1. Veronica Abbass Post author

      Ah Indi

      You’re late to the party, but typically, you purposely misunderstand.

    2. Corwin

      So the folks who just recently protested against democracy are now gathering allies to fight the twin scourges of freedom of belief and freedom of expression. Colour me unsurprised.

      Being allowed to vote with one’s face concealed is an intrinsic part of democracy? I think I’ll just colour you ridiculous, thanks.

      1. Dianne

        I agree but it is allowed, as shown by the people who wore paper bags and Hallowe’en masks to vote.

        1. Corwin

          Yes, I know it’s allowed, and I don’t have a huge problem with that – in principle I think it would be more satisfactory to require people to present photo ID and show their faces, but as far as I know voter fraud is an almost non-existent problem in practice, so I’m not terribly concerned about the issue. However, Indi’s comment implied that protesting against letting people vote with their faces covered was tantamount to protesting against democracy itself, and that’s a ridiculous position.

          1. Indi

            I explained in some detail in the original post why their protest was anti-democratic (or if you want to be pedantic, it was protesting the *mechanism* of democracy, not the idea itself). If I thought you really cared, I would be happy to repeat the explanation, and even add detail. But I know you don’t really care; you’ve said as much many times.

  7. Corwin


    Your “explanation” showed that the protest was kind of pointless and poorly informed, in a system that doesn’t require people to show photo ID in order to vote anyway, and that was indeed a point worth making. However, that doesn’t mean it was a protest against democracy or against the mechanism of democracy, not by any stretch of the imagination. It was a protest against a perceived flaw in Canada’s particular mechanism of democracy.

    The protesters were implicitly saying “hey, there’s a problem here, people could vote illegitimately by covering their faces and impersonating someone else!”. Your explanation made it clear that the problem is actually worse than that – people don’t necessarily even need to cover their faces in order to successfully impersonate someone else when voting, because there’s no requirement to show photo ID. So making it illegal to vote with one’s face covered wouldn’t be sufficient to close the loophole – we’d have to make it illegal to vote with one’s face covered and require people to display photo ID in order to vote.

    Such rules would admittedly be a little cumbersome, and I don’t think they’re necessary given that voter fraud seems to be pretty much a non-issue. And yes, they’d disenfranchise some presumably small number of people who for whatever reason couldn’t get a photo ID. But to call such a trifling adjustment to the creaky old engine of Canadian electoral mechanics anti-democratic is just, as I’ve been saying, ridiculous. Tweaking the rules of democracy is not the same thing as destroying or undermining democracy, and pre-empting a plausible (if rarely used) form of voter fraud would improve the security and integrity of the system even if it would also slightly narrow the scope of participation. All we’re talking about is a minor trade-off.

    It’s also worth noting that the creaky old engine was built in the 19th century, when requiring photo ID wasn’t really an option. If the system were being designed from scratch today, I’ll bet photo ID would be required without anyone thinking twice about it. Why insist on clinging to an outmoded, Victorian way of doing things? Do you just hate progress?

    1. Indi

      > Such rules would admittedly be a little cumbersome, and I don’t think they’re necessary given that voter fraud seems to be pretty much a non-issue. And yes, they’d disenfranchise some presumably small number of people who for whatever reason couldn’t get a photo ID.

      Unnecessary rules that disenfranchise people are not merely “a little cumbersome”. They are, in plain point of fact, violations of the entire point of democracy. The point of a democratic vote is that every person should have an equal voice in determining how the country is managed. Thus something that gets in the way of that without good reason is literally against the point of democracy.

      And if your argument is that it doesn’t really matter because it’s just a “small number of people”: What if there were a rule that said “you can’t vote if your family’s roots are from Madagascar”? That would probably disenfranchise *LESS* people. Yet it is plainly obvious that such a rule is completely against the spirit of democracy. What if there were a rule that said John Smith of 32 Main Street, Edmonton can’t vote? You think that wouldn’t be a violation of democracy? Of course it would. The number of victims is irrelevant.

      I know none of this matters to you because – by your own explicit admission – you don’t give a shit unless it affects you personally. Nevertheless, the fact remains: A protest in favour of creating unnecessary rules that make it harder or impossible for people to vote – particularly when those rules are designed to target people of certain groups, such as ethnic groups – is a protest in favour of weakening or undermining our democratic system. QED.

      1. Corwin

        The point of a democratic vote is that every person should have an equal voice in determining how the country is managed. Thus something that gets in the way of that without good reason is literally against the point of democracy.

        My understanding of democracy is subtly different, but that’s another discussion. The important point here is that preventing voter fraud seems like a damn good reason to some people, and to me it seems like a damn good reason in principle. If someone steals your vote by impersonating you, and then goes on to vote again under his or her own name, you’re certainly not getting “an equal voice in determining how the country is managed”. So if we’re arguing on the level of principle, there’s a good case for requiring presentation of a photo ID and an uncovered face.

        Of course, I acknowledge that voter fraud isn’t much of a problem in practice. But if we’re arguing at the level of practice…

        What if there were a rule that said John Smith of 32 Main Street, Edmonton can’t vote? You think that wouldn’t be a violation of democracy? Of course it would. The number of victims is irrelevant.

        In principle, maybe, but in practice the number of victims is very relevant indeed. Think about it from the point of view of the integrity of the electoral system. If we’re trying to take everyone’s opinion into account, losing John Smith’s opinion is just a small departure from that standard. If no one on Main Street can vote, the departure is much more serious, at least assuming Main Street is reasonably long. So on the level of practice, we’re balancing one small problem against another. Don’t require photo IDs, and there will probably be a few cases of voter fraud here and there, though I’d be amazed if that ever changed the outcome of an election. Require photo IDs, and a small number of people will be excluded from voting – though I’d be amazed if that ever changed the outcome of an election. If it turned out to be a bigger problem than anticipated, it could be made easier and cheaper for people to get photo IDs (something that might be a good idea anyway), and the problem would be reduced to negligible proportions.

        The larger point is that democracy is a many-splendoured thing. There are lots of ways of implementing the basic idea, and the number of people who are allowed to vote is just one thing (albeit a fairly obvious one) a reasonable democracy could set out to maximise. The integrity and security of the electoral process is another.


        Not unless you mean Quite Erroneously Declared.

      2. Corwin

        Sorry, forgot to address something…

        I know none of this matters to you because – by your own explicit admission – you don’t give a shit unless it affects you personally.

        I’d be honestly curious to know where you got that. You’re clearly misinterpreting or overinterpreting something I wrote, because I care about many things that don’t affect me personally and I’m pretty sure I’ve never said otherwise.


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