Secularism can't be used as a weapon against religious practice
The Court of Cassation’s March 19 overruling of the dismissal of a veiled woman working for the Baby Loup day care center has mobilized many members of the political class. Criticisms of “a decline in secularism” came fast and furious. Both right and left-wing politicians now want to take the opportunity to legislate again on secularism, in the spirit of greater restriction on religious expression. In a rare consensus, the political class seems determined to make secularism a weapon against freedom.
Some religious leaders have expressed their concern about this political mobilization, and rightly so. The reality is that this intention is part of an idea that is already widespread – a popular definition of secularism – which is presented as the restriction of religious expression to the private sphere, implicitly understood as the family home and places of worship. Yet secularism guarantees in its very principle the respect for religious freedom, while laying down the separation of Church (and with it all religious organizations) and State.
It is this principle of separation that defined the rules regarding the neutrality of the France’s civil servants, but this principle already raises a question. Pope St. Pius X protested strongly against this separation in the 1906 encyclical (addressed especially to the French people), Vehementer Nos, calling it an insult to God and his Church and a violation of the Church’s and the faithful’s freedom to worship. The condemnation was strong enough without even having to add the issues of France’s violation of the treaty and the nationalization of ecclesial property. If the relationship between the Holy See and the French Republic has calmed down over time (although it would be premature to expect the return of a certain harmony), we would be hard pressed to defy the Pope’s prophecy about the future restrictions on religious freedom. In fact, the 1905 law already contained the seeds of those restrictions, all the while claiming to defend religious freedom.
Today in France, Catholics have gotten used to the 1905 law and consider it a good compromise. They even tend to look with understanding eyes upon the consequent principle of the neutrality of civil servants and institutional venues. However, as the sociologist Jacqueline Costa-Lascoux pointed out during an interview with LaCroix newspaper, secularism also involves the principle of the “compatibility of freedoms,” which allows the government to subordinate religious freedom to other rights that it may consider priority. Costa-Lascoux also mentioned the protection of children as an element in our policies today, as in the case of the law banning the wearing of religious symbols in schools.
This raises two questions. The first question, about whether to give priority to the free practice of religion or to the protection of children, is already difficult. Will it be necessary, for instance, as Germany has already considered, to prohibit Jewish ritual circumcision on newborn male infants, and thus limit a central practice of their religion in order to protect the child?
The second question posed by this idea of “protecting the child” against the free exercise of religion is: what must we protect children from? Is religion a threat? This is what emerges from the speeches of the French political class. Regarding education, Vincent Peillon’s goal is to snatch the child from the family’s control. This obviously raises the question of how to remove the child from the control of the French government later on, but before that, it raises the question of the real danger that religious practice may pose for people who want to restrict it. Costa-Lascoux specifically mentions the protection of “the freedom of the child.”
Indeed, what Christian parents, as they prepare their children for baptism, has ever heard this phrase: “I will not take my child to church or impose anything on him because I want him to be able to choose freely later”? The reality is that freedom comes with an element that is largely ignored here, and which in other contexts is called informed consent. In order to be free to choose, a child usually needs to know and experience something. We rightfully deny a child the chance to experience something only when it involves a real danger, from the use of drugs to leaning too far out a window. That says a lot about how religion is considered here.
The hardening of public opinion and of the political class on the issue of secularism is a dangerous cocktail that mixes a limited conception of freedom and a vision of religion as a menace. We must recognize that all of this was already present (albeit subtly) in the 1905 law, especially in the debates that led up to it. This idea of a new law was therefore predictable, if not in form, at least in spirit, and we can expect that it will not be the last step in the evolution of French secularism. Of course, in France, we have not experienced the threats and persecution that believers in some countries (particularly Islamic ones) have experienced when their governments refused to allow the principle of religious freedom. But we can ask why atheism, which has nothing philosophically neutral about it, contrary to what the French like to believe – an atheism which claims that the Republic “does not recognize any religion” and which presents a conception of religious freedom that is much more limited than in Christian doctrine – should relent in achieving its goal to “de-Catholicize France,” as St. Pius X put it.
So rather than clinging to the 1905 Act, we should perhaps begin to refer more directly to the teachings of the Church in this area, in particular to the Second Vatican Council and to what the document Dignitatis Humanae says about religious freedom: “This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of both individuals and social groups and of any human power whatsoever, in such a way that no one is forced to act against his conscience or prevented from acting, within reasonable limits, according to his conscience, in private and in public, alone or in combination with others. It further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the real dignity of the human person as revealed by the Word of God and by reason itself.”
Preventing people from respecting the requirements of their religion, even as a working official of the State, is a violation of their freedom and thus a violation of dignity – not only their personal dignity, but their human dignity in general. We should really become conscious of it rather than waiting for these restrictions, which for now pertain mainly to Muslim worship, to spread to other religious practices, including Christianity. “Will babysitters be told one day that they have to remove the crucifixes in their homes under the pretext that non-Christian children spend time there?” the Secretary General of the CEF asked in the LaCroix article.
This inalienable freedom is in fact a basic principle of human ecology: one does not make the choice of religious practice free by concealing these practices, just as we do not teach people to respect others by hiding what makes them different from us, and just as we do not forge a national unity by erasing the differences between people. France’s political left, once the champion of respect for authentic diversity, is now so afraid of the religious phenomenon that it has abandoned its principles on this point. The same thing is happening with the first secretary of the French Socialist Party, the former president of SOS Racism, who – contrary to all logic – today signed a call to push for a stricter secularism.
In the end, it was the President of the Observatory Against Islamophobia, Abdallah Zekri, who warned the government against the logical consequence of the coming restrictions: the rise of communalism. Again, this is a no-brainer in terms of human ecology; as in nature, the deepest forces adapt and take other paths when their previous paths are blocked off if they are to survive. “Parents will want to create denominational nurseries and schools, as the Jewish community does. And I can already imagine the foreign countries that will be happy to pay for them in order to ‘annoy France.’ Some radical Muslims will benefit from it,” Abdullah Zekri warns.
This is logical, because any Christian, Jew, or Muslim who refuses to convert to atheism and continues to live in France will hold ever more tightly to the sense of belonging to their religious community as the Republic seeks to partition off that which is so dear to their conscience and their lives. And, ultimately, the atheist Republic will have to confront the communalism she has deliberately created.