A new law in Quebec prohibits wearing religious symbols or vestments for some government employees. (CNS photo/Philippe Vaillancourt, Presence)

Quebec passes Bill 21 in face of opposition

  • June 14, 2019

OTTAWA -- The fight against Quebec’s secularism legislation must continue even though it is now law, say religious freedom advocates.

Updated 2019-06-18:
Various minor changes.

The CAQ government forced the passage of Bill 21 on June 16 after invoking closure to stop debate, despite opposition from several groups, including Quebec’s Catholic bishops.

Bill 21 bans the wearing of religious symbols by public servants including judges, police officers, teachers and others, though it grandfathers in those who wear Muslim hijabs, Jewish kippahs or Sikh turbans if they already have a job. The bill includes language that anticipates invoking the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

However, former Ambassador of Religious Freedom Andrew Bennett, who now heads the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute, said the law can still be challenged on a number of fronts, both legally and through public resistance of an unjust law.

“There should be court challenges,” Bennett said. “Another path is for employers such as municipalities and school boards to simply refuse to honour the legislation in their contacts with employees.

“It’s important to remind people that because a government or state passes a law, it doesn’t mean that it’s true. A law such as this, that deprives people of their fundamental freedom of religion and freedom of conscience is not true, it’s a violation of truth. And furthermore, it breaks down community between people of different faiths.”

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the National Council of Canadian Muslims are among those expected to launch lawsuits. Though section 33 of the Charter allows provinces to override the Charter, Derek Ross of the Christian Legal Fellowship has argued in a recent article in The Lawyer’s Daily the fundamental rights to religious freedom precede the Charter. 

“Quebec has made it illegal for gov’t workers to express, in even the most passive way, that they are religious,” said Ross on Twitter June 17. “The message of #Bill21 is that faith must either be hidden or purged from public space entirely. This should concern all of us, directly impacted by the law or not.”

The Quebec National Assembly was technically supposed to rise for the summer on June 14, but the government extended the sitting through the weekend until the bill was passed at about 10:30 p.m. Sunday by a 75-35 vote. At the last moment, the government introduced amendments regarding enforcement of the bill, including surveillance measures.

“It’s one thing to use closure on amendments to an existing law regarding construction, let’s say, but to use it on a new piece of legislation that overnight changes the way fundamental freedoms are respected in the province is unconscionable,” said Bennett. “We enjoy the right to freedom of religion and other fundamental freedoms simply by being human beings.

“These are rights that are inherent to us and the state’s responsibility is to respect those rights at a very profound level. It’s not the role of the state, especially in a representative democracy, to use fundamental freedoms as their playthings.”

On June 14, the 31 Catholic bishops of Quebec deplored the threat of closure to pass the legislation without hearing from affected religious organizations. But their cries and that of religious freedom advocates across Canada fell on deaf ears.

Instead of threatening to shut down debate to force the passage of a bill that strongly polarizes Quebec society, the bishops said legislation that could limit individual rights significantly must be studied rigorously, without being rushed.

The government has the responsibility to contribute, through its laws and actions, to the respect for the rights of each of its citizens, and to encourage the peaceful living together, the bishops said.

Respect for equal treatment of persons and for the value of individual liberty has shaped Quebec’s history, they said. Quebec society is characterized by peacefulness, hospitality and tolerance, notably its respect for religious difference, something that has emerged gradually through frank dialogue.

The recent state of the debate over Bill 21 seriously forgets the heritage of this tradition, the bishops said.

The bishops affirmed the principle of the secularity and religious neutrality of the state. They said they agreed with the prohibition of the wearing of religious symbols by state employees who exercise coercive authority and have a strict dress code, but the measures regarding teachers showed a misunderstanding of the religious fact in society and its cultural connotation.  

Bennett said he cannot think of a single example of someone wearing their faith openly imposing their beliefs on someone else. Even the RCMP allows the wearing of Sikh turbans as part of the uniform.

“The Quebec bishops should toughen up,” Bennett said. With Bill 21, the province has imposed “secularist principles that are pushing people with devout religious beliefs into the margins of society, into the private sphere, and therefore depriving the broader society of their full presence, their authentic presence.”

The bishops warned the misunderstanding of religions expressed in Bill 21 seem to be nourished by prejudices and fear, and only exacerbate them.

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