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Charter of Quebec Values must not stigmatize religious convictions: theologian

Gregory Baum, a leading and often controversial Catholic theologian, has added his voice to those who oppose the Parti Québécois government’s Charter of Quebec Values.

But in so doing, the former priest cautions that it would be wrong to label as xenophobic all who support banning the wearing of conspicuous religious attire by public servants, as proposed in Bill 60.

Baum, professor emeritus of theological ethics and sociology of religion at McGill University, has immersed himself in major Quebec issues since moving here from Toronto in 1986. He is the author of more than 20 books on a variety of topics.

We spoke at the Jesuit Society’s Centre justice et foi (Justice and Faith), where Baum has an office. The centre was founded by Rev. Julien Harvey, a theologian and fervent nationalist who believed that “justice” has a higher value than “nation.”

Baum noted that in Quebec, language and identity issues are often expressed in the tension between “collective self determination” and individual rights.

However, in its commitment to support immigrants and refugees and their successful integration into Quebec society, Baum and the centre strongly oppose the charter. For many Muslims, the proposed ban on wearing the headscarf at work is “a humiliation,” Baum noted.

“There is a kind of irony that there is a resentment against the Catholic Church that now manifests itself toward Muslims. This is quite absurd,” he said.

He urges compromise in the debate and accepts as a starting point the Bouchard-Taylor Commission recommendation that only some with coercive authority—judges, crown prosecutors, police, prison guards—should be barred from wearing religious symbols.

While Baum has no problem with anyone wearing religious symbols, he accepts that a partial ban might become part of an acceptable compromise.

But there is also a need for province-wide rules, such as whether hospitals and prisons have to provide kosher and halal food, and whether employees have the right to additional paid leave for religious holidays.

The PQ approach reflects the French model of laïcité (France’s version of secularism) and the philosophy of Republicanism, which regard society as a social project and accords it more importance than individual rights. The same impulse was at play in the 2012 student revolt against tuition hikes, which regarded education as a societal issue, he noted.

“There is also something in the Catholic tradition that emphasizes collectivity, that sees society as ‘a projet sociale’,” Baum said.

“This debate divides all groups, indépendentistes and federalists.”

In September, Justice et foi appealed for a climate of “tolerance and receptiveness to the other” and warned that Quebec might “slip into xenophobic territory.”

The debate reveals that “many people really think that Islam is a violent religion.

This kind of Islamophobia has entered Canada and Quebec and is a terrible thing. We wrestle against it, but it exists.”

The centre warns against any new law that would “discriminate against people, stigmatize their religious adherences or convictions, or exclude them from certain jobs.

“This is disturbing, no doubt about it.”

Baum asks whether the impulse for supporting the religious-symbol ban is a reflection of “the Conservative and Catholic view at one time that we must protect ourselves against Protestant and secular influences.”

To break down barriers, Baum’s advice is to work together with francophones in worthwhile projects, as he has done over the past quarter century.

Baum, 90, is working on a book on Catholic theology in French Quebec since the Quiet Revolution, and another on sociologist Fernand Dumont.

“I also write book reviews and articles—I’m a compulsive, I can’t stop.”

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