Montreal

Religious garb OK for cops, judges, says Bouchard-Taylor report's co-author

Police officers, judges and other authority figures in Quebec should be allowed to wear religious symbols while carrying out their official functions, says Charles Taylor, co-author of the province's landmark study on reasonable accommodation.

Philosopher Charles Taylor backs away from controversial recommendation in report that bears his name

Philosopher Charles Taylor is backing away from one of the central conclusions of the landmark study he co-authored on reasonable accommodation. (The Templeton Foundation/Reuters)

Police officers, judges and other authority figures in Quebec should be allowed to wear religious symbols while carrying out their official functions, says the co-author of the province's landmark study on reasonable accommodation.

In an open letter published today in the Montreal daily La Presse, Charles Taylor writes that he no longer backs one of the central recommendations of the commission that he presided over with sociologist Gérard Bouchard.

The Bouchard-Taylor report, released in 2008 as part of an effort to quell concerns about the erosion of Quebec identity, suggested that public servants who exercise the coercive authority of the state be barred from wearing religious garb.

In practice, that would mean police, judges and prison guards couldn't wear head coverings such as Muslim hijabs or Sikh turbans, or conspicuous symbols such as Christian crucifixes.

But the political and social climate in Quebec has changed significantly since the report was released, Taylor argues in the letter, adding the recommendation is no longer necessary to promote harmony between Quebec's majority and minority populations.

"People misunderstood it as a question of authority and wanted to extend it to teachers and even day-care workers," Taylor told CBC News. "It was stoking this fear and creating even deeper divisions."

Times have changed, Taylor says

In his letter, Taylor points to the divisive debate over the Parti Québécois's failed charter of values, which he said illustrated how attempts to limit people's freedom can have a stigmatizing effect.

"The effect was felt, among other places, in the multiplication of aggressive incidents, especially against Muslims wearing the veil, ranging from hateful comments to assault in certain cases," Taylor writes.

Philosopher Charles Taylor, left, and sociologist Gérard Bouchard shake hands upon releasing their report in 2008. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

"The debate had the effect of attenuating or eliminating ... inhibitions, along with thickening the clouds of suspicion and concern around newcomers."

Taylor also writes that the shooting at a Quebec City mosque last month, which left six men dead, triggered a surge of good will towards religious minorities in the province. 

The government should seek to consolidate that good will, he added, by avoiding legislating what religious symbols people can wear.

"Excluding more people in different ways ... that's just going to make the problem worse," Taylor told CBC.

'What Mr. Taylor is saying is very important'

Quebec's Liberal government is currently trying to pass a religious neutrality bill that would force Quebecers to give and receive public services with their faces uncovered. But the bill includes a provision for religious exemptions. 

Opposition parties have appealed to the Bouchard-Taylor recommendation in recent days in an effort to wrangle concessions from the government.

Both the PQ and the Coalition Avenir Québec want the Liberals to include the ban on religious symbols in the bill.  

Premier Philippe Couillard seized on Taylor's disavowal of the recommendation, framing it as support for his government's position.

"We were always opposed to discrimination based on clothing," Couillard told reporters on Tuesday.

"What Mr. Taylor is saying is very important. He is one of the commissioners. It allows us to see that when we have principles, we have to uphold them."

They're back to business as usual, the two opposition parties. It's really very discouraging.- Philosopher Charles Taylor

However, PQ Leader Jean-François Lisée, who was a spokesman for the charter of values proposal while a minister in Pauline Marois's government, accused Taylor of conceding to extremists.

Just because a minority acted out during the charter debate, said Lisée, that doesn't mean it wasn't worth having.

"I think this is a very weak argument and even an argument against peaceful deliberation," Lisée said Tuesday. 

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard welcomed Taylor's new position while speaking to reporters on Tuesday in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Taylor splits with Bouchard

Taylor's position puts him at odds with his co-chairman on the reasonable accommodation commission.

In an interview last week, Bouchard called on the Quebec government to create a more explicit framework regulating what religious symbols or clothing can be worn when giving or receiving public services.

He rejected outright Couillard's claim that it was a non-issue. On the contrary, said Bouchard, the need for government action was "urgent."

"If judges tomorrow asked to wear their religious symbols while presiding, if 20-odd police officers asked to wear religious symbols, how do you think Quebecers would react?" Bouchard told Radio-Canada. 

He went on to question Couillard's unwillingness to compromise with the opposition parties seeking to have the religious-garb recommendation incorporated in the bill.

For Taylor, on the other hand, last month's mosque attack presented a unique opportunity for reconciliation after the acrimonious charter debate. 

But by insisting on more regulations for religious clothing, the opposition is letting that window close, he said. 

"They're back to business as usual, the two opposition parties. It's really very discouraging."

About the Author

Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal. He is currently covering the federal election in Quebec.

With files from Radio-Canada

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