Women in Montreal protest a proposed city Charter of Values in this 2013 file photo. CNS photo/Christinne Muschi, Reuters

Editorial: A veiled threat

  • November 3, 2017
Catholics and people of all religions should be troubled by a new Quebec law that is an obvious affront to religious freedom. 

Passed on Oct. 18, Bill 62 includes a section that says people must uncover their face when accessing public services. The law covers everything from health care to public transit to signing out a book at the library. But given that Quebec has not seen a rash of bandits in balaclavas either riding the buses or applying for library cards, it’s clear the law is aimed at Muslim women who wear a niqab or burka. 

Society should bristle any time politicians thumb their noses at the fundamental rights of citizens. But people of faith should be particularly vexed when the thumbing is directed at their constitutional right to freely express religious beliefs. 

If this type of law is to become secular society’s new standard — censuring religious practices deemed to cause some societal discomfort — then Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslims should all be wary. Among many reasons to resent Bill 62, the campaign aimed at Muslim women sets an odious precedent. 

The law comes not long after the Parti Quebecois proposed a Charter of Values that would prohibit civil servants from wearing obvious signs of faith. Among items on that banned list were crucifixes, kippahs, hijabs and turbans, such as the one worn by new NDP leader Jagmeet Singh. Thankfully a change in government meant that bill died before it could be passed. But its sentiment obviously lingers. 

Quebec seems determined to impose a type of radical secularism that denies religious believers an equal place in the province’s pluralistic, multicultural communities. Instead, it is prescribing an intolerant model in which religious identity must, under threat of penalty, be hidden away or shunted to the back of the bus. It should make us all uneasy.

Enlightened societies understand that State secularism is neutral about religion, not hostile to it. The role of government is to enact measures to guarantee equality, promote tolerance and provide accommodation for all its citizens, including churchgoers of every religion.

And it is not a two-way street. Perhaps the State can require its public workers to be religiously neutral when interacting with citizens, but it has no right to demand citizens be religiously neutral when interacting with the State. So if a citizen sneezes while renewing a driving license, the State might try to discourage a clerk from saying “God bless you.” But if it is the clerk who sneezes, the government has no right to likewise silence a citizen.

Secularism is not about obliterating religion from public view. It’s about building societies that welcome everyone and denounce all types of religious discrimination and persecution. It certainly shouldn’t stigmatize women who wear a veil.

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