Rights and privileges, the reign of confusion

July 28, 2023

by Patrick Moreau, Le Devoir, Friday July 28th, 2023

Rights and privileges should not be confused. Rights, in particular “human rights”, are freedoms granted to all citizens of Quebec and Canada; these shared rights are a fundamental condition of the equality that must reign among citizens in a democracy. A privilege, on the other hand, is, according to the Robert dictionary, “a special advantage granted to an individual or a group, outside the common law”.

Over the years, Canadian jurisprudence has granted people who claim a religion all sorts of liberties that are not rights, since their non-religious fellow citizens are deprived of them, but privileges.

The fact, for example, that Sikh soldiers or police officers are able to change their uniform by wearing a turban, which is a symbol of their religious affiliation, is a privilege granted to them in the name of their religion, since any soldier or police officer who wished to change their uniform for reasons other than religious would not have the right to do so.

In the same way, the courts will not recognise your right to violate the co-ownership regulations you have duly signed, unless you invoke obligations incumbent upon you in the name of your religion (to erect a succah on your balcony, for example). Once again, this is not a right, but a privilege, since this possibility is not available to non-believers, or indeed to believers who do not share the same religion as those who have been granted this privilege by the courts.

The aim of laicity, in principle, is not to restrict believers, nor to make “second-class citizens” of those who practise a religion, as their representatives tirelessly claim and repeat, but simply to subject them to the common law; in other words, its aim is to stop granting them special privileges in the name of their faith. This is why it is one of the essential elements of any democratic political system.

If the believers in question sometimes have difficulty accepting this, it is because they consider that their religious beliefs are above democratically voted laws. Of course they have the right to believe this, but it would be dangerous for the law to explicitly recognise such an exorbitant privilege.

In a democracy, religious faith should come under the private sphere (and be protected as such in the name of freedom of thought), without being granted multiple privileges that place it legally above all other convictions, be they of a moral, philosophical, political or other nature. Making religious people a separate category, with substantial privileges, is a denial of the equality before the law that should prevail between citizens of a democracy, whatever their personal ideals.

Thus, with regard to one of the cases on these issues that is currently pending before the courts, namely the challenge to the ban imposed on schools by the Minister of Education to make prayer rooms available to their pupils, the same question can be asked: was it a right or a privilege? To answer this question, we need only consider whether the same schools would also offer premises freely to all groups that requested them so that they could promote their own convictions.

In this whole debate surrounding laicity, perhaps the burden of proof should be reversed. It should be up to those who claim not to be subject to certain democratically voted laws to prove that they are claiming a right that is actually shared and of which they are unjustly deprived as a result of this law, and that it is not a privilege that they are claiming only for themselves. This would remove some of the confusion surrounding these issues.

Having said that, the root of the problem is obviously neither logical nor semantic; it is eminently political. It is a societal choice. Unlike Quebec, (English) Canada has chosen not to be secular and to grant its citizens who adhere to a religion many privileges, privileges that make those who have no religion “second-class citizens”. Will it also choose to prohibit Quebecers from opting for another path and adopting a secular model that alone guarantees true equality between all its citizens?

Translated by DeepL, verified by Michel Virard

The original French article is available at: https://www.ledevoir.com/opinion/idees/795294/point-de-vue-droits-et-privileges-le-regne-de-la-confusion

Michel Virard