Quebec releases criteria for requesting exemption under religious neutrality law

Under Quebec's new religious neutrality law anyone giving or receiving a public service will be required to uncover their face. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The Quebec government has released a set of six guidelines when it comes to granting requests for religious accommodations as part of its controversial religious neutrality law.

Bill 62, which was passed in the National Assembly last October, bans people from giving or receiving public services if they are wearing face coverings such as the niqab or burka. The controversial law has been widely derided by advocates who say it is an attack on religious freedom and specifically targets Muslim women.

READ MORE: Quebec minister says ‘person’s choice’ to hide face – but you can be refused services

In December, a Superior Court justice stayed a key provision of the law, ruling the law was incomplete until the province outlined the rules under which exemptions could be granted.

Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée said Wednesday that there is not a single set framework for analyzing requests for accommodations, but instead a list of conditions that must be met in order for an exemption to be granted.

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“Every request needs to be considered in its own particular context,” said Vallée. “The directive guidelines aren’t to determine what is acceptable and what isn’t.”

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“This is meant to provide a framework of analysis for organizations to see if there is room or not to grant an accommodation.”

Here are the conditions outlined by the provincial government:

  • The request must result from the application of section 10 of the Charter of human rights and freedoms.
  • The request must be serious, in other words based on a sincere belief in the need to comply with a practice that is part of the applicant’s faith or with a religious belief.
  • The accommodation requested must be consistent with the right to equality of women and men and the right of every person to be treated without discrimination based on race, colour, sex, gender identity or expression, pregnancy, sexual orientation, civil status, age, religion, political convictions, language, ethnic or national origin, social condition, a handicap or the use of any means to palliate a handicap.
  • The accommodation requested must be consistent with the principle of state religious neutrality.
  • The accommodation must be reasonable, in that it does not impose undue hardship with regard to, among other considerations, the rights of others, public health and safety, the proper operation of the body, and the costs involved.
  • The person making the request must have cooperated in seeking a solution that meets the criterion of reasonableness.

As an example, Vallée said a request to put frosted glass in a gym window could be accepted in certain circumstances but refused in others.

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The guidelines stipulate that requests must be serious and respect the equality between men and women if they are to be approved, she said.

READ MORE: Montrealers cover faces, protest Quebec’s religious neutrality bill

Opposition not impressed

The Parti Québécois and the Coalition Avenir Québec have long criticized the law, saying it doesn’t go far enough to ensure secularism in the public sphere.

Agnes Maltais, the PQ’s secularism critic, said the only clear guideline is the one that doesn’t allow students to wear face coverings while at school.

She said the other conditions proposed by the Liberal government puts the onus on civil servants to decide who should or shouldn’t be granted an exemption based on religious grounds.

“They told us for example that when it comes to the education system, there were about 500 requests for religious accommodations per year,” she said, adding that nurses and doctors are also dealing with extremely difficult situations.

“Will these guidelines solve these problems? In our opinion, no.”

— With files from the Canadian Press

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