Quebec’s Bill 21 puts religious freedom at risk

  • April 2, 2019

OTTAWA - In pursuit of a secular state, Quebec is wrong to limit religious freedom, said the president of Quebec’s assembly of bishops after the province tabled a controversial bill that will bar many provincial employees from wearing religious clothing and symbols on the job.

Bishop Noel Simard of Valleyfield said the bishops recognize that the state “wants to declare its neutrality,” but believes this bill goes too far.

“That neutrality must not restrain the fundamental rights of the individuals and the communities to express their religious and spiritual convictions,” he said after Bill 21 was introduced March 28.

Simard said people must be able to live according to their religious convictions and to express those beliefs in the public square.

Bill 21 will prevent provincial employees who interact with the public from wearing such items as a hijab, turban or kippah. Although opponents say the law is a clear violation of the Canadian Charter’s religious freedom protections, Premier Francois Legault intends to use the notwithstanding clause to override any court challenges.

The Quebec bishops are currently studying the legislation, but they issued a statement March 6 in anticipation of the bill.

“The wearing of religious signs or clothing is a clear case of the exercise of religious freedom,” said the statement. “Restricting in any way this fundamental freedom should be done only on the basis of grave and unassailable reasons.”

The Quebec bishops believe the new law has been fuelled by the presence of some Muslim women who wear the veil, but targeting these women goes contrary to the importance of integrating them into society, the bishops stressed.

Critics believe the law is discriminatory and some municipalities and school boards say they will not enforce it. The bill requires women to uncover their faces when either providing a government service or receiving several types of them. Simard noted polls show Quebecers are about 75 per cent in favour of the bill.

Douglas Farrow, a professor of Christian thought at McGill University in Montreal, believes there is “a fair bit of prejudice” at play. “People on the street who are in favour of the bill are often happy enough to point the finger at Quebec’s bad experience with Catholicism, although I suspect government is more concerned with Islamic influences at this point than with Christian ones,” said Farrow.

Bill 21 has a grandfather clause to allow those already working in publicly-funded jobs to retain their religious attire as long as they remain in the same job.

“The grandfathering is a double-edged sword,” Farrow said. “It creates a category of citizens who are special, who have identified themselves by way of religious symbols. People don’t like that.”

Threatening to use the notwithstanding clause is “a clear indication” that the Quebec government knows it is violating the Charter, said Don Hutchinson, Principal and CEO of Ansero Services Inc., which works to promote and partner on religious freedom.

He said the Quebec government is ignorant of the Supreme Court of Canada’s decisions on the principle of state neutrality, which is that “governments are neither to favour nor hinder any particular religious group or non-religious group in the practices of their beliefs.”

Farrow argued it is not possible for a state to be neutral. “They (policies) inevitably have some kind of anthropology or theological idea behind them,” he said. 

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