Why civil servants representing the State to the public may not advertise their political or religious personal beliefs.

June 13, 2021
Michel Virard

There has been a hotly debated shock of ideas regarding civil servants displaying ostentatious religious signs. What Humanist should think about it? What does the Charter of Rights (Canada) says about it? How the neutrality of the State should be interpreted according to the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC)?

I have the conviction most people opposed to a ban of religious signs for civil servants (with or without coercion power) have not really examined the case with enough attention. Many have reacted kneejerk fashion with what they think is the ultimate bullet: «Freedom of religion is a basic tenet of our society; therefore preventing the displaying of one’s religion is overriding any other consideration». This seems the position of our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, who should know better.

English Canada has been the subject of deep misunderstandings since the beginning, especially since 2013. Let’s see if we can sort things out.

Misunderstanding #1ostentatious religious signs are not merely a «fashion statement», as some would like us to believe. At face value, they are «religious statements» and it is not possible for us to determine if those signs are purely for internal consumption (between me and my god) or used as territory markers or because the wearer like them, with or without “deep conviction”. But, as we shall see, the intention of the wearer is not the concern of the State. It is the effects of those signs which are of importance, regardless of the opinion, the intent or the humor of the wearer.

Misunderstanding #2 – “freedom of conscience and freedom of religion is the same thing”. No, they are two different things, unfortunately often confused even by those who should know better. For those inclined to call the Universal Declaration of Rights to their rescue through the article 18,

«Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.»

I shall bring to their attention the article 29 (2) of the same Declaration.

«2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.»

In other words, every single article of the Declaration is subject to possible LIMITATIONS.  Actually, not all. It is not possible to justify a limit on freedom of thought or freedom of conscience because we don’t see how those freedoms could conceivably be used to curtail the rights of others. Those two are pretty well the only ones we can call “absolute liberties”. All the others are then subjected to limitations

That leaves “freedom of religion” on a limb but first let’s see what is included in “freedom of religion”. The Canadian courts did provide a kind of definition through their judgments, like this one:

«“the right to entertain such religious beliefs as a person chooses, the right to declare religious beliefs openly and without fear of hindrance or reprisal, and the right to manifest religious belief by worship and practise or by teaching and dissemination” »

Ross v. New Brunswick School District No. 15, [1996] 

Freedom of religion quite clearly includes the right to worship, to follow religious rules, and, most important in our case, the right to «disseminate» one’s own belief, that is, to proselytise.

Thus, you are perfectly entitled to entertain crazy ideas in your head and your are entitled to teach your crazy ideas to whoever is willing to listen to you (subject to limitations on hate speech, however). And no one can complain since a freedom of religion without the freedom to try to convince others would not be a real freedom of religion. Note that in some countries with one state religion, some other religions are tolerated but not allowed to proselytise.

You can also advertise your faith through non-verbal media, such as billboards, posters, beautiful paintings, magnificent sculptures and the like, and no one should complain as long as you do that on private property and with your own money.

So we have established that the freedom to proselytize is indeed part of the freedom of religion yet, that freedom could be curtailed should it impinge on other people’s freedom.

You should be aware that the confusion between freedom of conscience and freedom of religion is not always an innocent mistake. Fusing an “absolute liberty” with a “relative liberty” with possible limitations is done often with the goal to make freedom of religion an absolute liberty, which it never was, at any time, in any country.

Now the next two misunderstandings relates to two different classes of civil servants

First, the case of the teachers of children and teenagers in State schools then civil servants providing services to citizens.

Misunderstanding #3 – Exposing children or teenagers days after days, month after month to the same image of an adult in position of authority has no measurable effect on their present and future religious inclination. In other words, they won’t be influenced by this repeated image of a person they consider a model. Therefore there is no reason to ban ostentatious religious signs in a State classroom.

I must say this is the most common misunderstanding I have found so far. Actually, this flies in the face of what we know regarding the power of image. But I prefer letting the experts in advertising explain the why and how on this fascinating subject.

This is an excerpt from the website “Measuring the results of your advertising» and it is a Canadian government website dedicated to helping fledgling businesses. (https://canadabusiness.ca/managing-your-business/marketing-and-sales/promoting-and-advertising-your-business/measuring-the-results-of-your-advertising/)

Of interest to us are these two paragraphs:

«Image advertising should keep your business and/or brand name in the forefront of customers’ minds. This kind of advertising should help you positively influence the attitude of the public toward your business and your offerings. You remind people week after week of the products or services that you regularly offer, and tell them about new or special services or policies.

Image advertising is harder to measure than immediate-response advertising because you cannot always attribute specific sales to it. However, you may notice that an ad or a series of ads that announce a particular brand start to pay off when you begin to get customers who want only that brand and ask no questions about competing brands. In short, the message lingers in the minds of those who have seen or heard the ad. Sooner or later, these people may act upon the message. »

Translated to the “religion” product, it means the repeated image creates a positive feeling toward a particular religion which will later facilitate other forms of proselytizing, i.e. “closing the sale”.

We have examples of that with the former recruiting of novices for Catholic monastic orders. One of our AHQ members is a former nun. She was enticed to become a nun herself (against the will of her own family) by the constant proximity of her teaching nuns all along her schooling. They were the “model” she wanted to imitate. So, when the recruiting priest came for girls with a “vocation”, it was not a hard sale at all and she welcomed the idea to become a Charity Sister, then a Carmelite. Eventually she realized her monastic condition was brutal, sadistic and meaningless and left the Carmel. All this misery can be traced to misleading images as well as misleading messages from the “models” at school. As a teen, she wanted the Catholic “brand” and asked no questions about competing brands.

If your are still convinced the power of the image exists merely in the imagination of deluded “xenophobes”, then there is the money test. How much money is spend  in Canada, each year, on billboards, posters, full pages in magazines in order to produce “image building” ?

No, much more than that 🙂

The whole advertising industry in Canada is about $7 billions, of which about $900 millions goes to static media such as billboards and posters. Thus, if you still believe the image of an admired person, seen 6 hours per day, 5 days a week, months after months, has no influence on the children and teenagers he or she supervises, then you are telling the advertising agencies of this country they do not know what they are doing, you are telling these agencies they are managed by idiots who are wasting the advertising money of their clients.

I confess I believe they know very well what they are doing.

That means without any doubt that children continuously exposed to ostentatious religious signs will develop a «positive attitude» toward the religion so advertised and this is thus a form of abusive proselytism, the effect of which will be felt in a diffused fashion and quite possibly much later. This is clearly a violation of the freedom of (and from) religion of the children, the defence of which, we, Humanists, have been at the forefront since we exist. 

Why Humanists should accept this form of influencing on the mind of their children? To «respect the freedom of religion» of one person, are we ready to compromise the freedom from religion of his/her far more numerous captive audience?

Misunderstanding #4. “While we accept (reluctantly) that the neutrality of the State is desirable, we mean the neutrality of the institutions themselves but not of the civil servants employed by those institutions because we consider them separate.” 

This argument of the separation of civil servants at work from the institution in which they work is a last ditch attempt at justifying the unjustifiable.  If we follow this line of thought, then you would never sue the government for its errors: you would sue the civil servant who caused you damage. But have you ever seen a government institution not taking responsibility for an error by a civil servant? Of course not, the civil servant delivering a passport to you IS the government. His actions engage completely the institution, exactly like any employee of a commercial corporation engages the responsibility of his employer. There is no distinction: at the time of transaction, the employee IS the institution. In fact, if the condition to employment was that the employee had to take full monetary responsibility for his own errors, I suspect there would be very few takers. In this implicit contract, the counterpart of this shielding of the employee from potentially irate customers is that the employee will have to display his loyalty to his employer while at work. One wonder how long a GM employee would last if would come to his office wearing a Ford overall.

Thus, if a civil servant wears ostentatious religious or political signs, he is breaching this implicit contract of loyalty versus protection. Since the institution has to be neutral (see SCC judgment of the 15 of April 2015) the employees of the institution have to present a neutral look, at least to the citizens using its services, and one could argue as well, to the colleagues working in the same workspace of the institution.

Misunderstanding #5 «Laïcité is required to protect our identity». This was about the biggest blunder a Prime Minister of Québec could do regarding the neutrality of our institutions.

Unfortunately it has been popular on the right of the political spectrum but the actual truth is that laïcité was and still is a basic tenet of the progressive left. Laïcité is the form of government which guarantee equal treatment for all believers AND non-believers alike. It was created precisely to prevent a particular system of belief to oppress those who do not share it. Laïcité means the State has nothing to do in the affair of religious beliefs, it means the State is legally «incompetent» in matters of beliefs and refuses to take side. The State has to be not only «neutral» but «religion blind».That has nothing to do with «identity» per se. Identity is about people. We are talking about institutions.

Michel Virard

March 2019

Michel Virard