Efforts to defend the separation of church and state in English Canada are already suffering as Quebec’s Charter of
Secularism Values is used to argue that secularism is “exclusionary” or intolerant.
The latest example comes from the City of Saskatoon, where the city is considering options for a prayer policy for before city council meetings. This move comes after complaints were raised against the long-standing Christian prayer used to open city functions.
City administrators have correctly identified that the principles of secularism and equality leave only two options for prayers at city events: Include all (and no) faiths or none. Either the city makes an effort to include different perspectives during opening remarks (including non-theistic views) or they rid the entire process and leave people to celebrate their own beliefs before commencing business.
Some provincial legislatures have opted for the first option and in some cases Humanists have given opening invocations. Nevertheless, the “all” approach is cumbersome and a bit awkward. Realistically, you’re likely to miss many worldviews (as there are as many religious views as there are people) and each event will alienate those who do not share the faith on display that day.
My preference is therefore for the state to not take a position on religion, as an institution, and let individuals believe what they will. The government has no need to validate different religious viewpoints through collective worship and such activities are best left to the religious.
The complicating factor in making this argument is that the Quebec approach ignores individual freedoms, imposing state secularism over individuality. This inevitably leads to statements from the Mayor of Saskatoon arguing for more religion in the city:
I think everyone has the opportunity to have prayer. If they don’t wish to, that’s fine too. I certainly don’t want to become like Quebec, I’m all for all prayer, I’m for an all-inclusive community, not excluding anyone.
We also get the same language from Councillor Randy Donauer, who instigated the first complaint with Christian prayers at a civic event,
Our goal is not to clamp down and ban any of these things. Like I said, this is not Quebec. I think they’re totally going down the wrong road here and I’m really concerned we’re going to take a first step down that road.
The media loves a simple contrast between two overly simplified views. Here we have repressive and anti-religious Quebec secularism versus an attempt to be inclusive and promote religious freedom and rights. Supporting the Quebec Charter of Values (like some Canadian Atheists are apt to do) feeds this false narrative and works against efforts to end state endorsement of religious privilege while protecting individual freedom of conscience.
Secularism isn’t about taking away people’s rights to pray, believe in god, or express their religiosity (all so long as it doesn’t harm anyone), but an effort to end the privilege of any one theological viewpoint. It protects people through their freedom to believe or not. Unfortunately, the misguided Charter of Values is now being used as a scare tactic to argue that secularism is an attempt to remove people’s religious identities.