In the Citizen and Postmedia, MLI managing director Brian Lee Crowley writes that there is a reasonable debate to be had about the limits of personal religous expression by public servants. But Quebec Premier Pauline Marois is not interested in a reasonable debate.

Quebec charter wrong in execution, not principle

The verdict is in: the English-Canadian commentariat is unanimous that Quebec's proposed Charter of Values is both a stupid and a bad idea, incompatible with a multicultural society.

They are half right. It is a bad idea (and incredibly ineptly handled). It is not, however, a stupid one.

In their justified rush to condemn the PQ's fearmongering over the survival of the Québécois pur laine, these commentators have ignored that there is a legitimate debate to be had about how the private beliefs of state employees can and should intrude on their work.

Danielle Smith's Wildrose Party harmed its chances in the last Alberta election by championing the idea that justices of the peace who were conscientiously opposed to performing gay marriages should be exempted from doing so. What was the objection to such an exemption? Presumably that people who work for the state must be prepared to act on and enforce the state's policies, and be neutral and even-handed in their treatment of all citizens. If the state decides that gays should be allowed to marry, those who work for the state must be prepared to set their private feelings aside and faithfully execute their public duty.

So how far is the state entitled to go in enforcing this neutrality? This is not a stupid question. On the contrary, its importance is magnified in a multicultural society composed of many groups and individuals of widely differing backgrounds and moral assumptions. In those circumstances, the state must be even more scrupulous; it must be neutral and be seen to be neutral. Otherwise government can easily lose its ability to be a trusted arbiter in social conflict and reliable enforcer of the rules.

Nor is it stupid to think that how the servants of the state dress might matter enormously. Drunken brawlers on St. Patrick's Day might be particularly resistant to being arrested by a policeman wearing his Orange Order sash. A feminist might reasonably have reservations about handing her child over to a Muslim woman teacher wearing a veil, fearing that this person would be unable to separate her private beliefs about the role of women from the official equality of the sexes professed by the state. A Tutsi, whose tribe suffered horrific massacres at the hands of the Hutus in Rwanda, might wonder what kind of care he would get from a surgeon who insisted on wearing traditional Hutu symbols.

So a policy that required government workers not to make ostentatious shows of their private beliefs in the course of performing their public duties could be justified. Nor would this, as many seem to believe, constitute "discrimination." No one is forced to work for the government, and the devout of every religion have activities they are forbidden to engage in.

A pious Catholic wouldn't work in an abortion clinic, a devout Jew could not accept a job that required her to work on Saturdays and an observant Muslim could not work as a bacon taster for a meat packer. Does that mean these jobs "discriminate" against such people? Not at all. It means that the devout have freely made certain choices that preclude some others. A person unwilling to subordinate their private beliefs to their public duties has made such a choice, understanding that there are both costs and benefits to their beliefs.

But requiring government employees to set aside the symbols of their private selves while on public duty is not the only possible policy consistent with state neutrality. The Canadian alternative is based on trust, the presumption of innocence and a "least harm" principle. We trust that people who agree to work for the state do so in good faith and with the intention of honouring their duties, and we presume they are doing so until we have evidence to the contrary. They may then be legitimately disciplined. We regard what they wear as largely immaterial until the individual's behaviour gives us specific reasons to believe otherwise. We try to protect the neutrality of the state in ways that cause the least possible harm to people, including those who work for government. Requiring people to give up symbols of their beliefs does cause them harm, and we seek out alternatives that minimize that harm before hauling out the heavy cannon.

Finally, in this debate motivation matters. Where the Quebec government has gone so badly wrong is in putting forward a policy that could be reasonably justified, but doing so in a way that makes it clear that reasoned pursuit of the public good is not its goal. Instead the PQ is clearly seeking partisan political advantage by demonizing minorities and lending the prestige of the state to vastly overblown fears of cultural dilution among old-stock Quebeckers. That we must never accept.

Brian Lee Crowley (twitter.com/brianleecrowley) is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think-tank in Ottawa: macdonaldlaurier.ca.