Synagogue and State

An Absurd Push for Separation of Religion and State in Canada

Allowing public workers in Canada to wear religious head coverings does not put a commitment to secularism at risk, says Mira Sucharov.

As the polarizing—and sometimes satirical—controversy marches on over Quebec’s proposed Bill 60, known as the Charter of Values, the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal has been dragged into the mix in an unsavory way, while at the same time taking the opportunity to issue a principled statement of its own. The bill seeks to ban public service employees from wearing overtly religious symbols, including the Muslim hijab and the Jewish kippah.

According to screen shots obtained by the Montreal-Orthodox Jewish community blog, a Parti Quebecois candidate in Montreal, Tania Longpré, made some incendiary remarks on Facebook. In response to a social media query about the public funding of the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal with special mention of its name, the practice of circumcision, and the wearing of kippot (skullcaps) and peyot (sidelocks) in public, she replied “against, against, against.” She then agreed that this language should be added to the proposed text of the bill.

According to the blog, she soon “backtracked” on her comments, deleting the Facebook thread, and calling the brouhaha “childish.”

A surgeon at the Jewish General soon issued an open letter to Longpré defending circumcision, and asking her to “rethink” her comments and her candidacy. Meanwhile, the Jewish General itself has jumped into the fray by declaring that it will not conform to the demands of the proposed bill.

Like many instances of modern-day politics, in this event there is both logic and absurdity.

Despite the snarky tone in parts of the surgeon’s open letter, there is some relief in his attempt to cast the increasingly heated circumcision debate in logical terms. “Beyond the religious ties, circumcision has many health benefits. It all but eliminates the risk of penile cancer, reduces transmission of HIV and prevents such complications as phimosis and paraphimosis,” he writes.

But we all know that Jews (and Muslims) don’t circumcise their children primarily for the health benefits. Which brings us back to the question of religious practice in public life.

The reason the proposed Quebec bill is so absurd is that it seeks to demean and single out those whose religious commitments happen to entail particular codes of dress, without any obvious value replacement. That is, were hijabs or kippot (or prominent crucifixes) to be considered by most—or even by some—as having a harmful or insidious effect on others, then an argument could be made that there is some value in debating the issue.

But in the case of the actual circumstances surrounding the proposed bill, a commitment to secularism, meaning the separation between religion and the institutions of the state so crucial to democracies, isn’t actually at stake. A private citizen—even one who is employed by the provincial government as a clerk, nurse, teacher or doctor—is not unfairly mixing politics with religion by keeping his kippah on his head, as he would if he worked anywhere else.

Which brings us back to the question of circumcision. In that case, as many have argued, there are reasonable arguments to be made that the effects of the practice cause unintended harm. There are other reasonable arguments that the health benefits outweigh whatever pain is caused to the infant. But unlike in the case of wearing a religious head covering, it’s not enough to say that it’s our religion. Children’s bodies are at stake, and debates around circumcision—whether motivated by concern, prejudice or cultural indifference, are legitimate ones to have. For this reason, it is a healthy sign of democratic dialogue that the surgeon’s letter at least engaged the issue.