By Ricardo Fortune
After many months of controversy, Quebec’s Bill 21 on the secularity of the state, has been adopted. What should Christians think about it? Should we rejoice or worry? It is legitimate for Christians to question the decisions taken by our elected officials and evaluate whether they are in line with our worldview. Bill 21 forbids anyone who works for the government to wear any type of religious symbol in the workplace. As we have discussed in a previous article, there are many issues with this bill. But in this article, we will only consider what is problematic for Christians.
Religious liberty is the right to live according to one’s deepest convictions and to express them publicly. By the 2nd and 4th centuries, Tertullian and Lactantius had each referenced the idea. Having been persecuted during the three first centuries after the birth of Christ, Christians were the first to appreciate and defend religious liberty. As noted by Barrett Duke, religious liberty is implicitly taught in the pages of scripture. It is presupposed as a societal condition necessary for the propagation of the Gospel. God wants worshippers who freely choose to serve Him (Joshua 24:15). He is Creator of both mankind and the institution of the state, and therefore governments have no right to interfere in the relationship between Him and His creatures. The State receives from God the authority to regulate specific things such as crime and punishment (Romans 13:1), but it is incumbent upon God to regulate spiritual things (Luke 20:25). This last principle, according to which God regulates spiritual things and man secular things, shows us that the Bible teaches a form of separation between the State and religion. Bill 21, however, goes against this foundational pillar of religious freedom in that it legislates against legitimate expressions of religion, where God alone should rule. Hence, because the government of Quebec has limited what Muslims can wear in public, Christians are no longer free to express their faith in whatever way they see fit.
For some Christians in Quebec, Bill 21 might seem trivial or even appropriate. Could this be due to the fact that since Christianity does not usually require of its proponents the wearing of religious symbols, some Christians might feel that it does not apply to them? The law might even be seen by some as a way to reduce the growth and influence of some foreign religions in Quebec. Is it legitimate for a Christian to support an unjust school of thought, as long as it does not have any direct impact on his own life? The golden rule of Christianity, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31), emphatically rejects this position. French-Canadians, who are largely Roman Catholic, have forgotten how indebted they are to the idea of religious liberty, without which they would have been forced to convert to protestant Christianity or accept being discriminated against when applying for government positions. The European wars between Protestants and Catholics after the Reformation should have taught everyone within Christendom the importance of religious liberty. If as Christians we have benefited from religious liberty, how could we refuse it to those of other faiths? What is good for the goose is good for the gander, and the Bible teaches that the Lord hates double standards (Proverb 20:10). Living in a society where religious liberty flourishes comes at a cost. It requires that, within reason, we grant the same liberties we enjoy to those with whom we disagree. The principles that allow us to live and express our faith are the same that allow the Muslim woman to wear her veil and the Sikh his turban. Hence, in restricting religious liberty for others, we would likewise restrict ours. God knew His people would be mingled with people of all kinds of beliefs, but He commands us to let the wheat grow with the tares (Mat. 13:24-30). God reserves to Himself the right to separate them at Christ’s return, but for now, He is asking us to all live together. This implies that the greatest benefit Christians can confer upon society is to work so that all people benefit from the same liberties, without regards to any particular beliefs.
Some will say that bill 21 does not prevent anyone from practicing their religion, since it only requires that one refrain from wearing religious symbols at work. This objection is based on the false assumption that religion can be strictly private and that a forced repression of public expression of religion is a useful step toward maintaining peace in a divided society. But by definition religious liberty not only guarantees that one should be allowed to adhere to one’s preferred faith, it also implies that, except for a very few necessary limitations, no one should be forced to behave in a way that violates their beliefs and their conscience, whether in public or in private.
It must be kept in mind that if Bill 21 remains in force, Christians will eventually face severe consequences. It is freedom of conscience in the public square that allows a medical doctor to refuse to practice abortion or euthanasia. When coupled with religious liberty, it gives Christians the right to evangelize and to have beliefs that are divergent from the rest of the society on sexuality and other contemporary issues. It also gives them the right to live according their convictions. If it becomes legitimate to violate anyone’s religious liberties in the name of secularism, we can anticipate the loss of such rights. Many already say that in a secular state, religious groups should have no tax privileges. What will happen to the government funds that are usually allocated to Christian private schools if we keep heading in this direction? The Christian who favours Bill 21 is painting himself into a corner. He is rejecting the very principle that can protect him if he is ever discriminated against.
In sum, Bill 21 contravenes the religious liberty that was first proclaimed by Christians. Besides, Bill 21 guarantees that its intended aim, social cohesion and a peaceful society, will fail. Only universal religious freedom provides a path to peace. To live peacefully we must let others live peacefully. Desiring religious liberty for ourselves while restricting that of others is as self-refuting as this quote attributed to Antoine de Saint-Just, “No liberty for the enemies of liberty”.