Before we can even start to get into the weeds of why religious accessories bans are wrong, we need to pin down exactly what they are. This should be easy right? Sigh, not even close.
In fact, one could even argue that the lack of clarity on what religious accessories bans are is a feature, not a bug. As long as you keep it vague, you get to claim the support of everyone who is for any different type of ban. Once you start getting into details, the illusory coalition fractures.
The most general, most vague description of religious accessories bans is: Religious accessories bans are bans prohibiting public servants from wearing visible symbols of religious affiliation. The “logic” behind this is that the state should be religiously neutral, therefore everyone who represents the state should be “religiously neutral” as well. Don’t try to dig too deeply into that reasoning, because it is fractally wrong, but exploring why isn’t today’s task.
The general statement starts to fall apart almost immediately once you begin asking about the details. We can barely get as far in the definition as “bans prohibiting public servants…” before we have to ask: which public servants?
Here are some common answers:
- Only those who wield the state’s coercive authority (judges, police officers).
- Same as above, but also legislators, including elected members of legislative assemblies.
- Anyone who works in an “authority position” on a public paycheck, even if they don’t wield the state’s authority. “Authority position” is usually not clearly defined, but most people assume this would include teachers.
- All public employees.
It’s also not uncommon to hear calls to ban everyone from wearing religious accessories everywhere in public, or at least everywhere on public property. For example: banning women from wearing “burkinis” on public beaches.
That’s not the only part of the religious accessories ban definition that defies clarity or consensus. There is also disagreement on which types of religious symbols should be banned.
When the Parti Québécois was pushing their “Charter of Québec Values” in 2014, they limited the ban to “ostentatious” religious symbols. “Ostentatious” was defined in such a way that traditional Christian symbols – like an ordinary crucifix necklace – were okay, but the traditional symbols of other religious were not. To keep up the illusion of neutrality, the PQ allowed for non-existent symbols for other religious, like star-and-crescent earrings or a Star of David ring, but those are not real religious accessories of any sect of Islam or Judaism.
When the Québec Liberal Party took their swing at a religious accessories ban, they tried limiting it to accessories that concealed all or part of the face. They were trying to deny that they were targeting specifically religious accessories as part of a ploy to insulate their ban from Charter challenges (it didn’t work), but there are ban proponents who do insist that this is about specifically religious accessories, and (most iterations of) the Liberals’ Bill 62 did state that religious accessories were the intended target.
And, of course, some people want all religious accessories banned.
I’m even grossly understating the problem. If you want to get technical, the general definition of religious accessories bans – “bans prohibiting public servants from wearing visible symbols of religious affiliation” – actually begins to fall apart right from the word “bans”. Because what exactly does that mean? Does it mean a blanket ban for all existing public servants? Or is it a hiring ban, applying only to new hires (with a grandfather clause for existing public servants)? What does the ban mean? Are people who wear religious accessories going to be fired? Fined? Jailed? How would that apply to positions that are protected, like members of Parliament, judges, or Senators? Would wearing a religious accessory as a public servant be a criminal offence?
Okay, so as a general concept, the idea of a religious accessories ban doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But perhaps the specific proposals over the years have some merit. Perhaps they were clarified, coherent, and implementable as public policy.
Spoiler alert: they weren’t.
It would be too much of a diversion to pick apart all the different variants that have either been legislated or proposed for legislation, never mind all the variants that have been floated by proponents in general. (I may publish an article after the series, going over the history of religious accessories bans.)
But it turns out we don’t really need to consider every different variant of religious accessories ban to see how wrong they are. We can get very far by considering the general concept while assuming that specific implementations have worked out the kinks. We can also consider the most limited, most conservative ban variant, and if that can’t be justified, then any more extensive or more extreme variants will also be unjustifiable.
So that’s the plan; a two-pronged approach:
Show why the idea is wrong as a concept:
Use the general definition of religious accessories bans: A ban prohibiting public servants from wearing visible symbols of religious affiliation.
Steel-man that position by assuming that it can be implemented coherently and practically.
Show that it’s still wrong.
Show why the idea is wrong from a practical perspective:
Use the most conservative, most limited form of religious accessories ban: Only persons in positions where they wield the state’s coercive power (judges, police officers) should be banned from wearing “ostentatious” religious accessories while on the job. (This is roughly the position of the Bouchard–Taylor Commission, though even more limited by restricting it to “ostentatious” symbols.)
Show that it’s wrong.
By extension, any form of religious accessories ban that goes beyond the most conservative, most limited form will also be wrong. (Unless, of course, they add something to make it more reasonable than the most conservative, most limited form… which seems tautologically unlikely, but I suppose is possible. If it is possible, I’d like to see it demonstrated.)
Let’s see how it shakes out!
What about “face-covering” bans?
Ah! Excellent question!
In order to slip a religious accessories ban past the Charter, sometimes people will try limiting the ban only to religious accessories that fully or partially conceal the face. This allows them to claim it’s not about banning religious accessories per se; they’re just banning face-coverings, and the fact that more or less the only face-coverings that will be affected are religious accessories, and specifically Islamic religious accessories… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Taken at face value, face-covering bans are not religious accessories bans, and the reasons used to justify them are different. Of course, no one’s foolish enough to really believe that. Face-coverings were never a public problem before the religious accessories ban debate started. And every time they’ve been brought up the real motive eventually slips out.
So yes, I will talk about face-covering bans, too. They’re ultimately religious accessories bans – no matter how hard proponents want to pretend they’re not – so the arguments about religious accessories bans as a concept will apply to them. But because they’re so unique, and so popular, I’ll also be talking about them in their own special article, where I’ll pick apart the claim that they’re not about religion, and focus on the specifically (apparently) nonreligious justifications for them.