Law 21 and the Fifth Unitarian Principle

“The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” /The Fifth Principle

For those of us who view religious differences as a marker of human inventiveness and creativity, the many months of discussions around Bill 21 were a sobering experience. It certainly gave me a very different reading of Quebec society and culture. I concluded that over many years of social discourse, Quebecers have developed an interpretation of ‘laicité’ which has strong majority support, and which has now gained public expression in Law 21. For the majority of Quebecers, this Law is the democratic expression of a firmly held principle. But for those who oppose it, Law 21 is in conflict with universal rights which cannot be abrogated by the decision of a democratic majority,

This presents a difficulty for the opponents of Law 21. The existence of this Law invokes a conflict of principles: i.e., between the freedom of individual conscience manifested in religious belief, and the democratic will of a majority enshrined in law.

Do our UU principles offer insight in such a situation?

In the Fifth Princple, UU’s affirm the promotion both the right of conscience and the democratic process. It concatenates these two issues together, giving the impression that, somehow, in ‘most’ cases, both of these objectives can be accommodated. But in many cases, they are in opposition. Law 21 is a case in point: on the one hand, we have “the democratic will of the majority”; on the other hand, we have the universalist claims put forward by individuals and groups invoking “the right to religious expression”, or more generally, as specified in the Fifth Principle, the right of conscience.

In law, and I think in everyday parlance as well, “the right of conscience” is usually viewed as an attribute of individuals, e.g. being a conscientious objector, and is not subject to democratic decisions. The “democratic process” in government, on the other hand, uses the will of the majority as the source of the legitimacy for its laws.

When we find principles in conflict, what should be our course of action? The Fifth Principle does not offer us guidance. Rights of conscience cannot be decided by democratic votes.

Unfortunately, asking courts to decide in such cases skirts around a potential negative consequence for the democratic process. Fighting the legality of a policy supported by the majority can cause the legal system to be questioned by those who have found legitimation for their views through passing this law. Nor is it likely that Quebecers will change their views about the negative consequences for them, of seeing ‘prominent religious symbols’ being worn by authority figures, through rational argument or our high-minded criticism.

Let me put it this way — Democracy has to be able to survive the reality that majorities are often wrong. That is the issue hidden in the term ‘populist’: by definition, ‘the people’ are ‘the majority’, giving their decisions democratic legitimacy. But that does not mean that they are correct.

Over time we know that minority views can become majority views – e.g., the acceptance of same-sex marriage and legal marijuana — but this takes time, and generally involves a lowering of the temperature of the ‘morality’ content of the debate.

Perhaps those of us who oppose Law 21 should model the behavior we wish to inspire: perhaps by seeking to understand those with whom we disagree, we can inspire them to dialogue with those whom they fear.