Last week the ruling party of the province of Quebec, Parti Québécois, unveiled a new charter which would prohibit public employees from wearing overt religious garb. The document states:
We propose to prohibit the wearing of overt and conspicuous religious symbols by state personnel in carrying out their duties. This restriction would reflect the state’s neutrality.
Included in their examples of “conspicuous signs would not be allowed to state personnel” is the dastar, the turban worn by Sikh men. The problem with such a prohibition, as Brandon Watson explains, is that banning the dastar makes the religious symbolism of Sikhism even more overt:
Why do Sikh men wear turbans? Sikh men can in principle wear other things (although the alternatives are usually associated with little boys and the turban is the only universally practical option for grown men), and since Sikhs tend to have a very reasonable approach to such matters, they would not usually have a problem going without it if it were genuinely required by context. But the turban is closely connected to what is undeniably a mandatory element of Sikh religious practice, and which is the real religious symbol here: uncut hair. In Sikhism, the hair, wearing kesh, is an overt and conspicuous religious symbol, and the point of the turban is chiefly to protect this essential religious symbol and display it in a manageable and reasonable way.
How much the turban is a religious symbol, rather than simply an ethnic garment that has become the standard way to protect a religious symbol, is a matter that could be argued over; there is no argument whatsoever that the uncut hair and beard are overt and conspicuous religious symbols. Sikhs have become martyrs rather than cut their hair. Uncut hair was required by Guru Gobind Singh for precisely that purpose; in a sense, he set out to make the Sikh community itself, and every member of it, an overt and conspicuous religious symbol. Take off a Sikh turban and you have not removed the overt and conspicuous religious symbol; you have made it more overt and conspicuous.
Will the government also ban the real religious symbol of Sikh men, their uncut hair? Whether they do or not, merely by saying that overt and conspicuous religious symbols cannot be worn the government is a way of saying that Sikh men (and many other religious people) are forbidden from taking civil service jobs. As Watson says, “That is not state neutrality, which is claimed to be the point, but active exclusion for religious reasons.”
Like many Westerners, the people of the Parti Québécois have bought into the myth of secular neutrality, which requires that all that religious beliefs be checked before entering the public square. They fail to recognize that to believe that religious beliefs should be excluded from the public square because they are religious is itself a belief rooted in a religious belief (i.e., a presumption of agnosticism). How can a ban “reflect the state’s neutrality” when it allows secular agnosticism to trump all other religious views?