Flap over turbans on the soccer pitch pits religion vs. secularism in Quebec

Published: Wednesday, June 19 2013 2:54 p.m. MDT

The short-lived ban of turbans on the soccer pitches of Quebec and the government's pending secular charter are signs a heated debate over religious freedom is brewing in the French-speaking Canadian province, commentators say.

The Quebec Soccer Federation over the weekend reversed its ban on turbans after more than a week of bad press about a rule that primarily targeted observant Sikh players.

Sikhs wear turbans to protect their uncut hair, promote equality and preserve their identity, according to RealSikhism.com.

The federation said its decision was based on safety concerns, although it didn't cite any examples of the risks of wearing the head covering during play.

Commentator Jonathan Kay wrote in the National Post that the turban flap illustrates a disturbing trend in Quebec: "the gratuitous antagonizing of minority communities under the pretext of Québécois 'secularism.'

"It is a highly selective doctrine: The Quebec government has made clear, for instance, that its planned secularism 'Charter' will not be used to go after, say, explicitly Christian symbols in public places. As exemplified by the turban episode — during which (Quebec) Premier Pauline Marois cheered on a plainly discriminatory Quebec Soccer Federation decision — this intolerant tendency within Quebec nationalist circles is an embarrassment to the province."

He concluded that the turban ban likely originated from QSF members who are still irked by a national government decision in the early 1980s that allowed Sikhs serving in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to wear turbans.

The turban controversy moved from the sports and religious arenas into politics when Marois claimed the QSF is autonomous and doesn't answer to the Canadian Soccer Association.

Columnist Don MacPherson of The Montreal Gazette revealed Marois' claim would violate the QSF's own bylaws. But it did create an opportunity for her Parti Québécois to raise its separatist flag and flex its independence from the rest of the country.

"It's a tactic employed by politicians of all stripes, but it is also classic PQ strategy, and it seems to have accomplished what it set out to once again," wrote Michelle Gagnon for the CBC.

As for the Sikh minority, they regret the turban issue even surfaced, but they agreed some positive things came out of it.

"It was an opportunity for the Sikh community to maybe educate people about who we are and on the significance of the turban," Balpreet Singh of the World Sikh Organization of Canada told The Globe and Mail. “It was an opportunity to reach across the boundaries of race and culture.”

Conflicts between Quebec's policymakers and religious leaders, both minority and majority, are likely to continue.

The Parti Québécois government plans to unveil what has been described as a secular charter next fall, an effort to provide rules and a framework on how to manage religious accommodations.

But Rhéal Séguin of The Globe and Mail reported that the so-called Charter of Quebec Values will most likely ignite a divisive debate, given previous government actions involving religious groups and opposition from other other political parties. He describes how the government opposed lifting parking restrictions for a Jewish holiday, but then argued that a crucifix hanging over the speaker's chair in the Quebec National Assembly is justified because the symbol is part of the province's heritage.

The majority Catholic Church isn't entirely happy with the government, either. Quebec's Catholic bishops oppose an end-of-life bill before the assembly that would allow euthanasia.

"We are at a crossroads with this choice," said Archbishop Pierre-Andre Fournier of Rimouski, president of the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Quebec, according to the National Catholic Reporter. "This is a very important moment for the future of our country, of our society."

Email: mbrown@deseretnews.com

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