COMMENTARY: Quebec’s Bill 21 makes a mockery of secularism
It’s hard enough to understand the notion that encountering a turban-wearing police officer would constitute some sort of an aggressive attempt at religious conversion, so it’s impossible to understand the impulse that would lead someone to actually phone the police over such a thing.
Quebec’s Public Security Minister floated the idea this week of encouraging citizens to call the police to report violations of the government’s proposed Bill 21. Other government officials, though, were quick to downplay the notion of police enforcing the province’s twisted version of secularism.
Make no mistake; a secular society is indeed one worth striving for. Freedom of religion is a fundamental Canadian right, and that freedom flourishes when the state remains neutral on the question of faith. Furthermore, freedom of religion entails a freedom from religion, insofar as religious views (or irreligion or atheism) are not to be imposed by the state. Neutrality means the state does not take sides.
What the Quebec government is proposing through its Bill 21 is not secularism, it is not neutrality, and it flies in the face of pluralism and freedom of religion.
The legislation represents the latest attempt in Quebec to regulate (i.e. prohibit) the wearing of religious garb and symbols in the workplace. The “Act Respecting the Laicity of the State” would prohibit public servants “in positions of authority” — teachers, police officers, Crown prosecutors, and prison guards, for example — from wearing religious symbols.
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The government and other defenders of the bill argue that this is an affirmation of the separation of church and state. They’ve tried to argue that “laicity” is a French term and concept that is not quite the same as secularism, despite the fact that it’s quite explicitly billed as state neutrality.
But don’t just take the word of a mere western Anglophone. In recent years, the Supreme Court of Canada has handed down two significant rulings on the question of secularism, both involving cases from Quebec.
With regard to Quebec’s Loyola High School and its policy of teaching students about Catholicism from a Catholic perspective, as opposed to the approach in the provincial curriculum, the court ruled that the “a secular state respects religious differences, it does not seek to extinguish them.”
With regard to the Catholic prayer previously recited by Saguenay’s elected municipal politicians, the Supreme Court declared that “true neutrality requires that the state neither favour nor hinder any religion, and that it abstain from taking any position on this subject.”
So if a secular society has an obligation to “respect religious differences” and “neither favour nor hinder any religion” then Bill 21 represents an obstacle to that goal rather than an advancement toward it. The particular faith, or lack thereof, of those working in the public service in no way represents any sort of official state religion or the imposition of such. Rather, this represents an intolerance of religion and I say that as someone who is not religious at all.
Not only that, though, there’s an obvious gender double standard at play here. A devout Muslim woman who wears a hijab would fall under this law, but a devout Muslim man who grows and maintains a beard in a very specific manner would not. Both are public displays of religion, but only one would be impacted by the law.
For obvious reasons, Bill 21 would almost certainly be found to be unconstitutional, both in terms of its violation of Section 2 of the Charter (religious freedom) and Section 15 (equality). The Quebec government certainly seems aware of that, which would explain why the bill invokes the notwithstanding clause.
Ideally, the courts would be the safeguard for governments inclined to trample on rights. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be an option here. Hopefully, Quebecers will see this for what it is and force their government to do the right thing.
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