Rights at Risk

The debate over secularism is ramping up in Quebec.

The debate over secularism is ramping up here in Quebec. Again! 

It wasn’t too long ago that the government of Pauline Marois introduced the Charter of Values in the legislature (Bill 60), which would have prevented public employees from wearing conspicuous religious symbols. That legislation died in the National Assembly when the minority government of Marois went down to defeat in the 2014 election. The bill only died, however, after generating a significant measure of anger and social division within the province.

And here we are, just five years later, with Premier François Legault making his attempt at legislating secularism. Legault hopes that Quebecers will see his Bill 21 as the less offensive cousin of the earlier Bill 60. His legislation, after all, only forbids religious attire among government employees in positions of authority; for example, school teachers, police officers, judges and prosecutors. Legault also points out that his proposed law will only apply to new employees, meaning that no one who is presently employed in such a position will be fired for wearing a hijab or a turban.

Leaving those assurances aside, the most curious things about Legault’s introduction of the bill has been his unwillingness to defend it in any meaningful way. As he introduced Bill 21 to the province he suggested, essentially: “Quebec is a secular society, we have been wrestling with these issues for over 10 years now, and so we must separate religion from the operations of the state.” That’s it. Legault has been inclined to say less rather than more in defending Bill 21, which implies that there is no compelling argument to be made in its defence – or at least no argument that will stand up under scrutiny.  


The basic question, of course, is “Why?” Why must religious clothing or symbols be restricted among those who are employed by the state, in positions of authority? How is the rule of law compromised by a crown attorney who wears a kippa? How is the instruction of a child in math or literature undermined by a teacher wearing a hijab? How is the administration of justice diminished by a police officer who wears a turban? In each case, of course, the answer is: “It isn’t.” This leaves the distinct impression that the law’s intent is simply to remove from sight those who are culturally and religiously different from the majority.

In addition to this, we should note at least two confusions that surround Bill 21. In the first place, the law assumes it is possible to form a meaningful human community without reference to faith-based convictions; it assumes there are neutral or objective criteria for deciding what a good society looks like. But all ideas about goodness, justice and community are to some extent tied up with theological or faith commitments – there are no faith-free points of view. A compelling vision of modern Quebec, then, is one in which each person is invited to transparency about his or her faith convictions, and not one in which we marginalize those whose religious convictions happen to be visibly expressed.

A second confusion introduced by Bill 21 is the idea that Quebecers are incapable of distinguishing between the religious identity of a person and his or her role as a teacher or police officer or prosecutor. It does not take a great deal of imagination to understand, for example, that a Sikh police officer upholds the laws of the province by his work, and not the laws of his religion (even if there may be instances of overlap before them). It does not take much effort to understand that the law he upholds has been established through democratic and legislative processes, rather than by simple deference to a particular religious text or tradition. 

It is difficult to anticipate how this latest chapter in the battle over secularism is going to unfold. But this much is clear: this legislation has done little or nothing to illuminate our shared lives within Quebec, or to show us how to live well together. 

We are capable of so much more than Bill 21 imagines. 


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