Religious accessories bans are wrong: The secularism lie

by | April 15, 2019

The most popular argument for religious accessories bans – for many, the only argument for religious accessories bans – is that they are in some way related to secularism. They’re not. In fact, quite the opposite.

I’ve pointed this out before, but it should come as no surprise that it didn’t take. If someone is committed to the idea of banning religious accessories, losing the secularism justification is devastating. When I’ve laid this argument out in debates about religious accessories bans, this is the point at which proponents often completely lose their shit, and start ranting about the existential threat of religion, or – just as often – the specific menace of Islam.

This is also the justification most decent, intelligent, well-meaning people rely on for their support for religious accessories bans. It’s very seductive, because secularism… real secularism… is such a good thing, and so important for the government of a diverse nation. And most people think they understand secularism, and a religious accessories ban seems to jibe with it (though always specifically the form of RAB they like, which is usually different from what other pro-secular people think secularism justifies).

Unfortunately, secularism is widely misunderstood. Sometimes it’s innocent confusion, because secularism is a more complex idea than most people are aware of. But just as often it’s deliberate conflation of secularism with other, unrelated ideas, like anticlericalism, and often outright islamophobia or xenophobia.

This is going to be a long article. I’ve had ban supporters in the past complain about all the words they have to read in a rebuttal, but I have no sympathy for them. If you’re advocating for taking away people’s rights, you should damn well be ready to carefully consider the reasons why you might be wrong.

This is the rebuttal to the single most common and important justification for religious accessories bans. Not only that, secularism is a much more complex topic than most people think. There’s a lot to do here; thus it gets long.

If you’re busy and just want the punchline, you can skip down to the summary. But don’t even think about trying to engage me in debate about this article unless you’ve read the whole thing.

So let’s start with a clear, simple, complete definition of secularism.

Definition of secularism

As most research does these days, let’s start our search for the definition of secularism on Wikipedia:

Under a brief definition, Secularism means that governments should remain neutral on the matter of religion and should not enforce nor prohibit the free exercise of religion, leaving religious choice to the liberty of the people. One manifestation of secularism is asserting the right to be free from religious rule and teachings, or, in a state declared to be neutral on matters of belief, from the imposition by government of religion or religious practices upon its people. Another manifestation of secularism is the view that public activities and decisions, especially political ones, should be uninfluenced by religious beliefs or practices.

That’s not a bad start. Let’s pull out the key concepts:

  • Secularism is about the government.
  • Governments should not be influenced by religion.
  • Governments should be neutral about religion.
  • Governments should not enforce or prohibit religion.

That’s a pretty good summary right there. However, if I just relied on Wikipedia, people would roll their eyes at me. So let’s find a better source.

How about this guy? That’s Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of Humanists UK, and President of Humanists International (which was known up until just recently as the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU)). Copson has written an entire book on secularism, titled, quite reasonably, if somewhat unimaginatively: Secularism.

As one might expect from a whole book on the topic, Copson spends a lot of time trying to suss out the definition of secularism – if it even has a singular definition:

The word ‘secularism’ still has multiple meanings, but this book is about the most common use of the word: an approach to the ordering of communities, nations, and states.

We’ll examine later the different definitions that exist even of this specific political secularism, but a good provisional modern definition that is adopted by the contemporary French scholar of secularism Jean Baubérot. He sees secularism as made up of three parts.

  • separation of religious institutions from the institutions of the state and no domination of the political sphere by religious institutions;

  • freedom of thought, conscience, and religion for all, with everyone free to change their beliefs and manifest their beliefs within the limits of public order and the rights of others;

  • no state discrimination against anyone on grounds of their religion or non-religious world view, with everyone receiving equal treatment on these grounds.

This secularism is not fully implemented in any state and never has been, but is the ideal towards which secularists like Baubérot wish to move the political order.

That provisional definition more or less survives the whole book, so it’ll work for our purposes. The key concepts here are:

  • Secularism is about the government.
  • Governments should not be influenced by religion.
  • Individuals should be free to practice their religion (or lack thereof).
  • Governments should not enforce or prohibit religion.

That’s basically the same set of key concepts we extracted from the Wikipedia introduction.

But one might argue that even though Copson wrote an entire book about secularism, he’s technically the head of humanist organizations – not specifically secular – so maybe he’s using a humanist variant of secularism. Okay, so let’s look at the definitions used by explicitly and specifically secular organizations.

Let’s start with the UK’s National Secular Society… because they conveniently happen to have a whole page about what secularism is. Here’s how that page starts off:

The principles of secularism which protect and underpin many of the freedoms we enjoy are:

  • Separation of religious institutions from state institutions and a public sphere where religion may participate, but not dominate.

  • Freedom to practice one’s faith or belief without harming others, or to change it or not have one, according to one’s own conscience.

  • Equality so that our religious beliefs or lack of them doesn’t put any of us at an advantage or a disadvantage.

The key concepts are:

  • Secularism is about the government.
  • Governments should not be influenced by religion.
  • Governments should not enforce or prohibit religion.
  • Individuals should be free to practice their religion (or lack thereof).

Yet again, there’s a similar set of concepts.

The Canadian Secular Alliance (CSA) doesn’t have an official definition of secularism published. However, I talked with President Greg Oliver, and he offered his personal understanding of secularism:

… Religious practices should only be restricted if they infringe upon the rights of others.

Public institutions are a different matter entirely. They are property of all citizens, and as such have a duty to maintain religious neutrality. To do otherwise creates a two tiered citizenship (ie. if a government favors Christianity, non-Christian citizens will not enjoy equal status in society).


… [S]ecularism really means secular government. The distinction between the individual and the institution is key. In a liberal democracy, individuals should live as they please provided they don’t violate the harm principle.

Once again, there’s a similar set of basic principles:

  • Secularism is about the government.
  • Governments should be neutral about religion.
  • Governments should not enforce or prohibit religion.
  • Individuals should be free to practice their religion (or lack thereof).

There are plenty of other definitions out there if you’re interested in doing further research. Here are just a few places worth checking out:

None of the definitions I found from any decent sources contradict the core concepts we’ve already enumerated.

So, I think it’s pretty safe at this point to use the following set of concepts as our working definition of secularism:

  • Secularism is about the government.
  • Governments should not be influenced by religion.
  • Governments should be neutral about religion.
  • Governments should not enforce or prohibit religion.
  • Individuals should be free to practice their religion (or lack thereof).

Let’s go in reverse order, and see how a religious accessories ban jibes with each of these components of secularism.

How do religious accessories bans fit with the key concepts of secularism?

Secularism requires allowing individuals to freely practice their religion

Obviously a religious accessories ban violates the freedom of individuals to practice their religion. That’s the point of it.

But secularism does not require that religious freedom is sacrosanct, and must never be violated. Virtually all of the definitions above make a point of saying that religious freedom can and should be limited in certain cases. Baubérot restricts religious practices to being within the limits of public order and the rights of others. The NSS talks about practising without harming others, and goes into even more detail further down the page, saying that secularism seeks to defend the absolute freedom of religious and other belief, and protect the right to manifest religious belief insofar as it does not impinge on the rights and freedoms of others. CSA President Greg Oliver makes a similar point by citing the harm principle.

So yes, there is room in secularism for abrogating people’s freedom to practise their religion, which would mean that a religious accessories ban does not fundamentally violate secularism. However, in every definition of secularism that mentions limiting the freedom of religion, there are always restrictions on the acceptable reasons.

Greg Oliver is explicit that [r]eligious practices should only be restricted if they infringe upon the rights of others. The NSS also only allows religious freedom to be abrogated when it [impinges] on the rights and freedoms of others. Baubérot also mentions the rights of others, and adds public order, though I would suggest that what he is referring to by “public order” ultimately boils down to the rights of others anyway (when you violate “public order”, you interfere with other people’s rights to a peaceful and safe society).

That would mean that: A religious accessories ban is compatible with secularism if and only if religious accessories impinge on the rights of others.

Can anyone make that case? I’ve seen it attempted, but never accomplished.

Secularism requires governments to neither enforce nor prohibit religious practice

Once again, it is obvious that a religious accessories ban violates this key component of secularism. Once again, that’s the point.

Most people that misunderstand secularism stumble on this concept. Everyone gets that secularism requires governments not to enforce religious practice. Few understand that it also requires governments not to inhibit religious practice.

But if you think about it, that should be obvious. Imagine a theocratic Muslim government that banned the wearing of dastars/turbans because they’re a Sikh practice. They’re not enforcing a Muslim practice; there is no Muslim practice of going bareheaded or “not wearing turbans” – they’re not enforcing a religious practice; they’re banning a Sikh practice. Yet clearly that would be a violation of secularism, right? I mean, they’re banning the practice specifically because it’s a Sikh practice. That as plain as day not something a government that wasn’t unduly involving itself with religion would do.

Now imagine the exact same ban (no wearing of dastars), for the exact same reasons (because it’s a Sikh practice), except now the government has no official state religion. How does that suddenly make the ban “secular”? It clearly doesn’t. The government would still be banning dastars because it’s a Sikh practice; it would still be inhibiting a religious practice for specifically religious reasons (because it’s a thing Sikh’s believe).

So, obviously, if a state bans a practice because it is a religious practice – and for no other reasons – that must be a violation of secularism.

Those arguing for religious accessories bans try to weasel around this problem using two different tactics:

  1. “Religious accessories bans don’t target a specific religion or religions. They target the idea of religion.”

  2. “Religious accessories bans aren’t targeting specific practices. They target anything that reveals religious affiliation, because it’s the display of affiliation that’s the problem, not the specific practice or which religion it belongs to.”

Both of these arguments are denials of reality; nothing more than rhetorical shell games to disguise the truth:

  1. You can claim you’re just targeting an idea until you’re blue in the face, but the undeniable reality is that it is not “ideas” being targeted, it is specific practices, and for the express reason that those practices are religious. No matter what their ideas about religion may be, a nonreligious person will never be affected by a RABonly religious people can be affected. Do you think that’s just coincidence?

  2. This argument is even more tortuously disingenuous, because RABs do target specific practices: they target the practices that can generally be used to identify someone’s religious affiliation on sight. Deliberately, explicitly, and specifically. That’s literally the point.

    And in point of fact, RABs do not merely target anything that reveals affiliation. They don’t, for example, ban a Jewish public servant from eating a kosher meal while at work. They also don’t ban religious accessories you don’t normally see, like Mormon magic underwear. The bans target a specific category of practices:

    • those that only religious people might want to do, and that nonreligious people will never want to do (for example, a non-religious person might conceivably want to eat kosher food for dietary or taste reasons, but they will never want to wear a kippah to honour YHWH); and

    • those that are “in the face” of observers, and difficult not to notice (because one of the real purposes of RABs is simply to shove something ban supporters find distasteful out of their sight so they can pretend it doesn’t exist).

    That is not banning the vague, general idea of showing affiliation with a religion. Indeed, under the proposed law, religious tattoos would not be banned. That alone should reveal the real reason for the ban.

RABs do target religions. They target all religions. (I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt here, because this is what proponents claim; we all know that in reality, they don’t target all religions… just “certain” religions. More on that shortly.) And they do so specifically by discriminating religious practices from practices that are not religious: Religious accessories bans don’t ban hats, they explicitly ban hats specifically worn for religious purposes. That’s what RABs are.

As with the violation of religious freedom, secularism does allow for some interference with religious practice. However, just as with religious freedom, that interference is strictly limited.

In this case, the limit is best spelled out by Baubérot:

  • religious practices cannot be interfered with on grounds of their religion or non-religious world view; and
  • everyone must [receive] equal treatment.

So you can’t interfere with a religious practice because it is religious. You could interfere with it for other reasons – such as if it interfered with the rights of others – but just because it is religious is not reason enough.

So are there any reasons for banning religious accessories besides the fact that they’re religious? Again, I’ve seen attempts, but nothing remotely reasonable or convincing.

Secularism requires governments to be neutral about religion

This is the trickiest requirement with the most challenging problems.

That’s because our culture does not exist in a vacuum, and it did not spring into existence ex nihilo. Our Canadian heritage is deeply and inextricably Christian. The notion that one can strip away religiosity and be left with something similar to contemporary Canadian society is ridiculous.

Is this woman dressed in a “secular” manner? The question cannot be answered; it is a nonsense question.

Allow me to demonstrate:

  • A Muslim woman shows up to her government job wearing a fashionable pants suit, sensible shoes… and a hijab. She is wearing the hijab because God wants her to hide her hair for the sake of modesty.

    Virtually everyone arguing for a religious accessories ban will say the hijab must be removed, and that once it has been, the woman’s attire is now “secular”.

  • A Christian woman shows up to her government job wearing a fashionable pants suit, and sensible shoes. She is wearing the pants suit because God wants her to hide her breasts and genitals for the sake of modesty.

    Nobody arguing for a religious accessories ban says that the pants suit must be removed, and that the woman will only be dressed in “secular” fashion once it’s gone.

What went wrong there?

Here’s another case that might help clarify what’s going on:

  • A nonreligious man shows up to his government job wearing nothing but a pair of tassels dangling from his nipple piercings, and chaps, with his big ol’ dong just a-hangin’ out there, swingin’ in the breeze. He’s dressed that way not for any religious reasons, but merely because he feels comfortable and beautiful… in other words, his reasons for his outfit are all nonreligious; they’re all secular.

    If you’re like most Canadians, and like virtually everyone arguing for a religious accessories ban, you’ll say that the man’s attire inappropriate, and he will only be dressed in “appropriate” fashion once he puts on a shirt and pants.

Stop and think carefully about what just happened there. Why is the man’s outfit inappropriate?

It turns out that covering the genitals or female breasts is actually a product of our Christian heritage. If you look at other cultures, you’ll see some very different standards. For example, in Japan, nudity was quite common; that only changed when Americans brought Christian shame to the Land of the Rising Sun after WWII. In fact, at least partial nudity was often the norm in many non-Christian cultures around the world… possibly most.

If our government were to be truly neutral about religion, then there would be no laws against nudity (except, obviously, in those situations where it would impair the rights of others… whatever those situations might be). But there are, because our government is not perfectly secular. There are still vestiges of Christian influence everywhere. The “default” in our society and our laws is “Christian”. So when you ban the modesty garments of some religions, you are not applying the law neutrally. You are privileging Christian standards of dress above those of other religions and above those of the non-religious (because a non-religious person may feel like walking around with their penis out or breasts bare, but they can’t because of Christian modesty standards written into our laws).

Once you realize that, what’s going on here is absolutely clear. There aren’t multiple dress standards in play here (“secular”, “appropriate”, etc.). There’s a single standard being applied, and that standard is: “Christian”.

Now everything makes sense:

  • When you strip the woman of her hijab, you aren’t transforming her outfit from “Muslim” to “secular”… you’re transforming it from “Muslim”… to “Christian”.

  • When you force the man to cover up, you aren’t transforming his outfit from “too revealing” to “appropriate”… you’re transforming it from “too revealing”… to “Christian”.

  • And when you don’t strip the pants suit off the Christian woman, that’s because she’s already dressed according to the “Christian” standard.

    And in fact, that’s why the idea of removing her pants suit feels “wrong” (while removing the other woman’s hijab does not). Doing so would make her attire less “Christian”.

At this point, people arguing for bans will wave their hands and mumble about “cultural standards”: Requiring people cover their genitals and female breasts is no longer a religious requirement. Maybe it started out that way, but now it’s been adopted by “secular society”. It’s just become a cultural norm, devoid of its religious roots.

Uh huh, okay, so let’s consider a society that has been historically predominantly Muslim, where hijabs were once enforced as a religious requirement, but that’s now ancient, dusty history, and now today women are free to choose to veil or not… but virtually all choose to do so, whether they’re religious or not, simply because they’d feel weird and naked going out in public without a hijab. In other words, exactly the same situation that exists in our society for wearing pants and shirts. If that society were to institute a religious accessories ban, what do you think it would look like? Wouldn’t it be the case that the woman described above – pants suit, sensible shoes, hijab – would be consider to be dressed in a “secular” fashion? Yet a Sikh in a dastar would be wearing a religious accessory?

Hang on… that sounds familiar. Didn’t we discuss something like this back in the previous section? Didn’t we talk about two governments – one a Muslim theocracy, the other “secular” – that banned dastars because they were Sikh? Yet both were violating secularism? Why, yes. Yes, we did. So we already know this isn’t “secularism”. The “cultural standards”/“heritage”/“tradition” argument doesn’t save it.

Thus it is also not “secularism” when a Christian theocracy, or former Christian theocracy turned “secular” – like this little, ol’ country of ours – does this.

The fact that it appears to be “secularism” to so many Canadians is simply a product of privilege blindness. We live in a culture steeped in Christianity and Christian standards, and it’s so pervasive and natural to us that we don’t usually notice it.

But it’s there. And people who come from cultures that aren’t so intrinsically Christian see it clearly.

Unless dress standards are truly secular, and not merely the standards of a particular religious tradition, religious accessories bans cannot be neutral, which implies they cannot be implemented in a secular way.

Furthermore, the application of a religious accessories ban cannot be done equally – which was another requirement for secularism. The modesty garments of certain religions get banned, but not those of other religions. And in fact, with our current laws, the modesty garments of certain religions get banned, while the modesty garments of other religions are required.

(If you banned all modesty garments and forced people to work functionally naked, that would be equal application. You would be technically privileging nudist religions, but that wouldn’t necessarily be a violation of equality because you are targeting all modesty garments, without regard for which religious tradition they belong to – the fact that some don’t have any is irrelevant. The principle of secularism discussed in this section is only violated when you selectively choose which modesty garments to ban based on the religious tradition. A total ban on modesty garments would still violate secularism for numerous other reasons, though.)

(But of course, no one is advocating for a religious accessories ban that leaves everyone naked.)

(That I know of.)

Secularism requires governments are not influenced by religion

This is perhaps the facet of secularism best understood by the general population. In fact, a lot of people will say this is the only thing that secularism is.

One would think this concept wouldn’t be relevant to religious accessories bans. After all, who in their right mind would argue that a public servant wearing a kippah or dastar or hijab is influencing the government?

And yet, you will hear this argued. What you will never hear, even if you ask for it, is how someone’s religious accessory influences the government.

What you’ll get instead are absurd and incoherent ramblings about – for example – a Muslim judge in a hijab delivering Islamist-inspired rulings, or a Sikh MLA in a dastar passing laws to establish Khalistan in Canada, or something like that. It’s never explained why the hijab or dastar is the problem; it’s never explained how taking the headgear off the exact same judge or MLA fixes the problem. (There’s also no answer given to the question of how these things could happen in any case: how could someone possibly get away with passing Sikh nationalist laws given that we have a constitution limiting what can be legislated, and how could a judge simply ignore Canadian law and get away with it? The only answer seems to be that since ban supporters don’t respect Canadian law, they assume no one else does.)

The closest you’ll get to a reasonable argument is that it’s not enough to just ban religious influence, one must also ban the appearance of religious influence. That’s not a bad argument, except for the fact that it’s a complete non sequitur. We’ll revisit it in the next section, but in this section, the rebuttal is that there is no way that any rational person whose head is not way up their ass could possibly believe that the mere wearing of a hijab (for example) means the government is under the influence of Islam. That’s just ridiculous.

So that’s the situation: An individual’s private choice to wear a religious accessory has absolutely no influence on the government.

Secularism is about the government

This is by far the most poorly-understood thing about secularism. It’s not about people; it’s about governments. People can’t be secular (in the sense of “secular” that we’re using); only governments can be secular. Secularism only applies to governments… not to the individuals in a government.

[A photo of the Québec Assemblée nationale in session, with a callout showing the location of the crucifix in its central location above the Speaker's chair.]
The location of the crucifix in the Québec Assemblée nationale. Every government that has promoted a religious accessories ban has defended this crucifix.

What that means is that it is possible – and in fact, almost guaranteed in practice, to some extent – for every single member, legislator, and employee of a government to be devoutly religious, and to be openly and publicly practising their religion, yet it can still be a completely secular government. All that is required is that they don’t let their religion influence or impact the way they are doing their government jobs.

This is where a ban supporter would say: “Aha! You say that religious people can’t bring their religion to the job! Well, wearing a religious accessory while on the job would be bringing their religion to the job! Checkmate!”

No. Wrong. My reply is: the ban supporter is not listening carefully enough.

It’s not the case that religious people have to somehow… completely extract all the religiosity from their being and leave it at home, in order to work a government job. That is ridiculous and unnecessary. Religious people can still be religious while at work. They can still believe in Jesus or Guru Nanak even while at work.

All that’s required is that their beliefs do not influence the work they do.

If their religious accessory somehow got in the way of them doing whatever their job is… that would be a problem. If their religious accessory changed the way they do their job… that would be a problem.

But in reality, that never happens, nor is there any sensible argument for why it would. The religious accessory a person is wearing has effectively zero impact on what they do. Take it off, put it on, doesn’t matter; they’re going to do the same job, regardless, good or bad. (The fact that the religious accessory has no functional impact does not mean it’s okay to require them to take it off. There are a ton of other reasons why that’s unjustifiable.) If they’re going to proselytize on the job, they’re almost certainly going to do it whether you take their religious symbols off or not.

Unless you can argue that the religious accessory a person is wearing changes their behaviour, and specifically that it does so for the behaviour they’re required to do as part of their job – or that it interferes with their ability to do that job – you have no justification for demanding they take it off to do that job.

Let’s bring back the argument from the last section that even if a religious accessory has no actual impact, it should still be banned because of the appearance that it might.

Here’s where we really get to the crux of the matter: that secularism is about the government, not the individuals in the government. Even if you could make the argument that a religious accessory creates the appearance that a person’s job duties will be influenced by religion – which, you can’t – that would only be showing that the individual is being influenced by religion… not the government.

The only time there can be an appearance of religious influence on the government is when the government introduces religious elements… or someone who is representing the government in an official capacity introduces religious elements as part of their official duties.

  • An example of the first case would be if the government uses a religious symbol as part of its official symbology. For example: appealing to God in the anthem, or having a crucifix up in one of the government’s public business areas.

  • An example of the second case would be if a government official led a prayer as part of the government’s business. For example, a mayor or city councillors doing prayers at the start of a meeting.

Here are things that are not examples of the second case:

A government official praying privately by themselves in their office before going to carry out an official duty.

Government officials are not robots who can do nothing but public duties during business hours. They’re humans who will still need to attend to their physical, mental, and spiritual requirements to function effectively. Not everything they do on the job is official business. It is not official business when a government official goes to the bathroom, eats their lunch (unless it’s an explicitly business lunch), or takes a moment to clear their mind, or pray, before getting down to business.

A government official having a crucifix up in their office.

Again, government officials are not mindless robots who surrender their humanity to serve us. They’re allowed the freedom to decorate their private office as they please. They can put up awards or diplomas they’re proud of, pictures of their family, or even random crap they find amusing or inspiring… which, yes, could include a crucifix. It won’t affect their official duties.

A government official wearing a religious accessory.

We allow government officials, as adults, to dress themselves. We do not impose uniforms on them (most of them, anyway – for those that do wear uniforms, we’ll leave that for another article). They can choose pretty earrings or snazzy ties if they like. If they’re choosing a religious accessory in their capacity as private citizens, then they have that right – they don’t lose their fundamental rights when they start taking a government paycheck. It’s their body – the government does not own it or control it – therefore if there’s a religious accessory on it, that’s not the government’s business.

In summary: Secularism applies to governments, not individuals, so unless someone’s religious accessories or practices are influencing the government – or appearing to – requiring their removal is not secularism.

People will insist that someone’s privately-chosen religious accessories somehow betray government influence. But of course, they can never come up with a coherent argument why.

What do real secularists believe?

At this point I think it’s undeniable and clear that religious accessories bans are not required by secularism, and that unless great care is taken in justifying them, they’re not even compatible with secularism.

But a committed believer in bans could still dismiss everything I’ve said as just my opinion, not necessarily shared by secularists in general. So let’s look at what real, actual secular organizations say about religious accessories bans.

In this article I’ve mentioned two secular organizations: the National Secular Society (NSS) of the UK and the Canadian Secular Alliance (CSA). (Humanists International (formerly the IHEU) was also mentioned, but aren’t specifically a secular organization.) These are major, national organizations in their respective countries dedicated to secularism. Let’s see what they have to say.

The NSS has published an official position statement on banning the burqa and niqab. After pointing out their distaste for the garments, the statement says:

[T]he NSS does not support attempts to legally ban the burka or niqab. We oppose a general ‘burka ban’ two grounds of principle: a woman’s right to choose what she wears, i.e.. her right to free expression; and her right to religious freedom.

If you want to get really pedantic, this is not a statement about RABs in general, but rather about specific religious accessories (the burqa and niqab). However, the burqa and niqab are the most extreme religious accessories in widespread use, so it’s quite reasonable to assume that if you’re against banning them, you’re against banning everything else.

The NSS does go on to allow for limited bans in specific situations, like when identification is required – they mention at airports and in courts. This is perfectly in line with the definitional discussion above. They also support banning students from wearing face coverings in schools … which is the opposite of what most RAB supporters want, which is banning teachers from wearing religious accessories. This is less in line with the previous discussion, but might be justifiable if a good enough argument could be mustered (the one in the policy statement is definitely not good enough, but perhaps there is something about the UK context that adds more).

What about the Canadian perspective? What does the CSA say?

[Canadian Secular Alliance logo]
Canadian Secular Alliance

Well, to my knowledge, the CSA hasn’t taken any official position on the current situation. That shouldn’t be surprising, because the Québec government only tabled the bill very recently, and their public statements about the bill have been varied and contradictory (both before and after tabling it). Perhaps the CSA will make a clear public statement once they have thought about it for a while, or consulted experts or their membership.


2014 was the height of the Charter of Québec Values controversy. Despite it’s expansive and vague title, the Charter of Québec Values was really just a religious accessories ban (there was some other bureaucratic and procedural crap about handling accommodation requests, but just about the only substantive changes the bill made was the banning of religious accessories). In fact, it was much more of a RAB than the more recent Québec Liberal Bill 62, which focused specifically on face coverings (although it did extend the ban to not just public employees, but also to people using public services).

, the CSA released a statement titled “The Canadian Secular Alliance does not believe that the veil should be banned in Canada”. The title is pretty self-explanatory. The meat of the statement is:

The CSA, as an organization advancing government neutrality in matters of religion, cannot support legal prohibition of the veil. The general view of the CSA is that:

  1. in the absence of a compelling reason to the contrary, no person should be forced to comply with a dress code imposed by the state; and
  2. no person should be forced to comply with a dress code imposed by their families, religious leaders, or cultural community.

I find it interesting that they make the point that dress code requirements are bullshit no matter who’s doing it. [Absent] a compelling reason to the contrary, it’s just as wrong to forced by the government to dress a certain way as it is to be forced by one’s family.

Like the NSS statement, the CSA statement is focused on the religious accessories of a specific religion – Islam – and even then, only specific types of Islamic religious accessories – the burqa and niqab. But just as with the NSS statement, we can assume that if the CSA doesn’t support a ban against those most extreme religious accessories, they don’t support a general ban.

And just like the NSS the CSA goes out of its way to clarify that it doesn’t like the idea of the niqab or burqa. But the principles they stand for – the principles of secularism – require them to defend the choice to wear them. For the record, that’s always been my position, too.

One more opinion is worth mentioning: the opinion of the Supreme Court of Canada.

[Logo of the Supreme Court of Canada]
Supreme Court of Canada

The 2015 ruling Mouvement laïque québécois v Saguenay (City) may be the most important piece of Canadian jurisprudence about secularism since the landmark 1985 decision in R v Big M Drug Mart Ltd that struck down the Lord’s Day Act (the very first case to consider the fundamental freedoms in §2 of the Charter, and the first to define Canada as a functionally secular state). The Saguenay case was about government-led prayers, and the final ruling was: government led prayers violate neutrality, and “tradition” or “culture” are not legitimate excuses. It was a tremendous victory for secularism in Canada.

In the Court’s near-unanimous decision (Justice Rosalie Abella wrote a concurring opinion where she differed on a technicality not relevant to the definition of secularism), Justice Clément Gascon wrote:

By expressing no preference, the state ensures that it preserves a neutral public space that is free of discrimination and in which true freedom to believe or not to believe is enjoyed by everyone equally, given that everyone is valued equally. I note that a neutral public space does not mean the homogenization of private players in that space. Neutrality is required of institutions and the state, not individuals. On the contrary, a neutral public space free from coercion, pressure and judgment on the part of public authorities in matters of spirituality is intended to protect every person’s freedom and dignity. …

I would add that, in addition to its role in promoting diversity and multiculturalism, the state’s duty of religious neutrality is based on a democratic imperative. The rights and freedoms set out in the Quebec Charter and the Canadian Charter reflect the pursuit of an ideal: a free and democratic society. This pursuit requires the state to encourage everyone to participate freely in public life regardless of their beliefs. The state may not act in such a way as to create a preferential public space that favours certain religious groups and is hostile to others. It follows that the state may not, by expressing its own religious preference, promote the participation of believers to the exclusion of non-believers or vice versa.

When all is said and done, the state’s duty to protect every person’s freedom of conscience and religion means that it may not use its powers in such a way as to promote the participation of certain believers or non-believers in public life to the detriment of others.


I repeat that what is at issue here is the state’s adherence, through its officials acting in the performance of their functions, to a religious belief. The state, I should point out, does not have a freedom to believe or to manifest a belief; compliance with its duty of neutrality does not entail a reconciliation of rights. On the other hand, it goes without saying that the same restrictions do not apply to the exercise by state officials of their own freedom of conscience and religion when they are not acting in an official capacity. Although they are not entitled to use public powers to profess their beliefs, this does not affect their right to exercise this freedom on a personal basis.

It’s thick language, which is to be expected from a legal ruling. But it states that homogenizing the public sector and blocking the participation of certain believers or non-believers in public life is a violation of the state’s duty of neutrality.

That’s not a clear and explicit statement against religious accessories bans. But it’s about as close as you’re ever likely to get to it in a ruling that technically has nothing to do with them.


There is no single, official definition of “secularism”. But we can take numerous sources and suss out the key components of secularism common to them all:

  • Secularism is about the government.
  • Governments should not be influenced by religion.
  • Governments should be neutral about religion.
  • Governments should not enforce or prohibit religion.
  • Individuals should be free to practice their religion (or lack thereof).

This is what happens when we apply those concepts to religious accessories bans:

Secularism requires that individuals be allowed to freely practice their religion (or lack thereof), so long as it does not impinge on the rights of others.

If a person’s religious accessories prevented others from enjoying their rights, then they could be banned. But they do not; there is no sensible argument that they do.

Secularism requires that when a religious practice is prohibited (or enforced), it cannot be for religious reasons.

You can ban, for example, burqas in situations where unobscured vision is required (like driving), or where there are security concerns (like in a place where only certain individuals are authorized, not “anywhere in public”). Those are nonreligious reasons. But you can’t ban burqas because (some variant of) Islam requires them, or because they’re just generally “religious”.

Secularism requires that a government be neutral to religion.

Unless you’re banning the modesty garments of all religious traditions (which, in practice, would leave everyone functionally naked), you are not being neutral. Trying to justify retaining the modesty garments you prefer for “cultural” or “historical” reasons doesn’t work; those are the same arguments used to justify government prayer, and that’s clearly a violation of secularism.

Secularism requires that the government is not influenced by religion

Unless a person’s religious accessories are influencing the government, or even just appearing to, secularism does not require their removal. There is no way a sensible person can look at an individual’s religious accessories – even if that individual is a state official – and reasonably conclude that they indicate that the government is either under the influence of that religion, or favouring it somehow. That would be as ridiculous as looking at a Minister’s suit and concluding that the Canadian government was under the thumb of Men’s Wearhouse (okay, I admit, I really don’t know any high-end designer suit brand names).

Secularism is about the government, not individuals

Secularism requires the removal of religiosity and signs of religious affiliation from the state… not from the individuals that make up the state, whether they officials, employees, or members of the general public. Unless someone is acting as the state – which only a tiny minority of government officials have the power to do so – then they are acting as private individuals… and they have the same rights and freedoms as all private individuals.

So secularism does not require religious accessories bans. And in fact, unless they are very carefully justified (and perhaps even then!), religious accessories bans violate secularism.

If this conclusion is correct, then we’d expect to see that major secularist organizations oppose religious accessories bans. That is exactly what we observe:

Technically these statements are only about niqab and burqa bans, but since those represent the most extreme type of religious accessories, opposing a ban on them can be reasonably interpreted as opposing a ban on accessories in general.

Also, in its 2015 Mouvement laïque québécois v Saguenay (City) ruling, the Supreme Court of Canada stated that “neutrality” (they avoided the word “secularism” for technical reasons) does not require “homogenizing” individuals in the public sector, and that, in fact, it prohibits measures that prevent religious people from participating in public life.

There is simply no way to avoid or deny the conclusion:

  • Saying that secularism requires religious accessories bans is wrong.

  • Saying that secularism allows religious accessories bans is mostly wrong.

    • It may be possible to justify a religious accessories ban if and only if you can successfully make certain arguments about its necessity, its effectiveness, and its neutrality.

    • No-one has successfully done so.

I know this won’t stop religious accessories ban proponents from continuing to declare that they’re doing it in the name of secularism. It didn’t stop them before. Even when the government itself explicitly states that its ban is based on laicity, and not secularism, that doesn’t faze ban believers. No matter how many times you point out to the most vocal ban supporters that it’s not secularism, and no matter how many times they fail to make the case that it is, they’ll be back at it the very next time they show up. They have no other choice; they have no other remotely plausible arguments. They need to keep screaming that “it’s secularism, it’s secularism!” because if they stop, there will be nothing but uncomfortably hollow silence on their side. And then they will be forced to take a long, hard look at why they want a ban so badly… and they’re not going to like what they see about themselves when they do that.

But it is my hope that at the very least, I’ve helped pull the wool from the eyes from some of the well-meaning people that have been duped by the superficially seductive idea that secularism requires making religiosity invisible.

Perhaps next time the chant begins that secularism requires banning visible signs of faith from the public eye, fewer people will be swept up into singing along.

I can hope so.

I live in hope.

3 thoughts on “Religious accessories bans are wrong: The secularism lie

  1. Trevor Bending

    I think Neville’s comment possibly implies that ‘Indi’ isn’t a name – is it?
    Or alternatively, he wants to know more about you or who you really are!


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