Apr 26, 2016

Don Macpherson: Your Quebec tax money at work: a study on 'Pastafarianism'

April 25, 2016


If you haven’t filed your Quebec income-tax return yet (you have until midnight May 2), maybe you shouldn’t read this column about how your provincial tax dollars are spent.

Last week, it was disclosed that Stéphanie Vallée, justice minister in a Liberal government that boasts of its financial “rigour,” had the transport department pay $16,140 for an expert study on whether “Pastafarianism” is a real religion.

It isn’t. Pastafarianism, or the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, is a satire of religion.

It originated in the United States in 2005 as a protest against the teaching of creationism in public schools. It has grown into a movement whose supporters purport to believe in a creator resembling spaghetti and meatballs and in pirates as the original Pastafarians.

The question of whether it’s a real religion came up in Quebec in 2014, during the debate on the former Parti Québécois government’s proposed “charter of values.” The charter, which was not adopted, would have forbidden public employees from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols such as the hijab, the head scarf worn by some Muslim women.

A Montreal activist, apparently to protest against the “reasonable accommodation” of religions by public bodies, wanted to be photographed for her driver’s licence wearing a tricorne pirate hat as a symbol of her Pastafarian “religion.”

The clerk refused, and a second attempt was also rejected by the SAAQ, the public automobile-insurance board that issues the licence. So the activist, Isabelle Narayana, hired civil-rights lawyer Julius Grey and took the SAAQ to court.

This led to the justice minister’s decision to have the transport department commission the study on Pastafarianism from an associate professor of the science of religions at the Université du Québec à Montréal, Louis Rousseau.

The department awarded the contract to Rousseau without seeking competing bids. Since Rousseau’s study has not been made public, we don’t know what he did that was worth $16,140.

But a simple Google search taking a few minutes and costing nothing answers the question he was asked.

As it turns out, the transport department spent its money — or rather, ours — for nothing. The SAAQ didn’t need the study to convince the judge hearing Narayana’s case that Pastafarianism is not a real religion.

Superior Court Justice Stéphane Sansfaçon reached that conclusion on his own. Last October, he rejected Narayana’s request to order the SAAQ to allow her to wear either a pirate hat or a pasta strainer on her head for her driver’s licence photo.

In his decision, he admonished Narayana and the lawyers for both sides for wasting the court’s time with such a frivolous matter, and Grey for even taking her case to court.

Somehow, the judge’s decision eluded the attention of the justice minister, even though Vallée was a defendant in the case along with the SAAQ, and even though the decision was reported in the newspapers.

For it wasn’t until 16 days after the decision was rendered that, at Vallée’s request, the transport department concluded the $16,140 contract for a religion professor to produce an opinion on a matter on which a judge had already created jurisprudence.

There is, however, some good news in this story.

The Coalition Avenir Québec member of the National Assembly who disclosed the payment, Nathalie Roy, says the incident proves the need for new guidelines for handling requests for religious accommodations.

If anything, it proves just the opposite. The clerk who refused to take Narayana’s photo, the SAAQ and Justice Sansfaçon were all able to handle Narayana’s request properly by relying on what Quebecers call “le GBS” — le gros bon sens, or plain common sense.

They might not have been able to define exactly what a real religion is. But to paraphrase what a former United States Supreme Court justice once said about defining pornography, they knew a request for an unreasonable accommodation when they saw it.


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