It should not surprise us that the province that legislates language also accepts the state telling people what they can and cannot wear. Motivated by cultural protectionism, the provincial government has passed Bill 21, which prohibits anyone who works for the government in a position of authority from wearing a religious symbol. The list of those affected by the new law is a large one, including police officers, teachers, judges and government lawyers.
This new law has a long history; it is more than 10 years in the making. After Gerard Bouchard and Charles Taylor were tasked with examining “reasonable accommodation” in 2008, the Parti Quebecois introduced The Quebec Charter of Values in 2013. It included the proposal to ban public servants from wearing “conspicuous religious symbols.” When this bill died on the order paper when an election was called in 2014, religious adherents breathed a sigh of relief.
The relief was short lived. Once the idea of enforcing state secularism was introduced, it gained traction. Every political party promised to reintroduce the ban on wearing religious symbols.
The Quebec Liberal Party passed legislation in 2017 to ban religious symbols. But the courts rightly ruled that it was unconstitutional.
So this time, Bill 21 includes the notwithstanding clause, thereby protecting it from legal challenge under the Charter. This section of the Charter allows a government to pass a law that violates a Charter right as long as they acknowledge the violation. It must be renewed every five years. Quebec is the one province that has regularly used this clause. After the Charter came into effect in 1982, the Quebec government passed the notwithstanding clause to protect all its laws from Charter review.
The new law also amends the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. It is very clear that the Quebec government recognizes that this law violates human rights.
RELIGIOUS MINORITIES TARGETED
Bill 21 is an annoyance to Christians, who will be prohibited from wearing crosses. It also includes tattoos, so Quebec hipster Christians will have to think twice about getting a bible verse tattoo on any body part that cannot easily be covered by clothing. But for other religious minorities in Quebec, it is much more serious. Baptized Sikhs are required to wear turbans and carry the kirpan, a small, ceremonial dagger. This law will limit the kinds of jobs available to practicing Sikhs. There has been considerable debate about whether the hijab is a religious requirement for Muslim women. It is often a sign of religious devotion. But is that any different than Christians wearing a cross? For some Muslims, it is a cultural practice. From the protests in the streets in Montreal and Quebec City, it is clear that Muslim women will not give up wearing the hijab without a fight. The large Jewish population in Montreal will also be affected. Many Jewish men wear the kippah. For many, this is a religious requirement.
THE LATEST IN STATE SECULARISM
Quebeckers who support Bill 21 argue that this new secularism requirement is a continuation of the Quiet Revolution. Before the 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church was deeply entwined with the government. During the Quiet Revolution, the state took over responsibility for education and health care from the Church.
But the idea that the state must be so neutral from religion that it cannot allow its employees to express their religion goes far beyond the state neutrality required by the Charter. It is, in fact, the antithesis of state neutrality, because it enforces state secularism.
In public debates on Bill 21, many Quebeckers argued that they have the right not to have religion imposed on them. This seems like an extreme view, but became the dominant narrative. It is a strange concept, indeed, that merely seeing someone wearing a religious symbol imposes their religion on you.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the National Council of Imams immediately challenged the new law in court. But with the notwithstanding clause in place, the courts may allow the law to stand.
CHRISTIANS COULD HAVE DONE MORE
It is disturbing to see that a government in Canada can pass a law that clearly violates religious freedom and the Charter does not protect religious adherents.
It was disappointing that few Christians in Quebec spoke out against the law. Any restriction of religious freedom affects all religious freedom. But this law is egregious in effectively preventing Sikhs, Muslims and Jews from a wide variety of employment.
In many parts of Canada, religion is gradually being pushed out of the mainstream. Christians, and other religious adherents, are facing increasing attempts to silence religious beliefs and practices. More than ever, religious minorities must stand shoulder to shoulder to uphold our freedom to follow our religious beliefs and practices.
The notwithstanding clause must be renewed every five years. This means that the issue is only over for a short time, and will have to come back before the legislature in 2024. That will provide a renewed opportunity for religious minorities to mount opposition to this law.
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