Experts with the United Nations say they are concerned about Quebec’s religious symbols bill, which was tabled in March, and are asking for more information on why it is necessary and how it is non-discriminatory.
The Quebec government’s controversial secularism bill, titled An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State, prohibits public-sector employees in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols at work.
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It affects teachers, judges, police officers, prison guards, Crown prosecutors and other public servants in what the government considers to be positions of authority.
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However, in a letter to the Canadian government, experts with the global organization point out that the bill does not define what religious symbols are.
They argue this lack of a definition could lead to potential discrimination.
“In addition, the display of religious symbols is a manifestation of religion or belief and, as such, any limitation of this freedom must be strictly defined,” the UN writes.
“We are particularly concerned with regard to the consequences for those who may be at a disadvantage or excluded from employment in a public position because of the potential effects of the proposed bill.”
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Without proper explanation, the UN noted that the bill “may affect the freedom of conscience and religion and the principles of equality set out in articles 18 and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
Article 18 of that covenant states: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”
Article 26 states: “All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law.
“In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”
Concerns over discrimination against certain religious minorities
The UN says it is also concerned about a provision in the bill that requires a person’s face to be uncovered to receive social services as it affects “certain religious minorities, constitutes discrimination and could lead to the violation of fundamental rights such as rights to health or education.”
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According to the UN, the current bill would violate the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which Canada ratified in 1970. Since “religion often intertwines with racial and ethnic affiliations, these legal provisions may have a discriminatory and disproportionate impact on racial and ethnic groups,” the letter states.
The letter also argues the current bill does not indicate how prohibiting certain officials from wearing symbols of their religion is necessary to protect security, order, public health or morals or fundamental rights and freedoms.
“In particular, it does not establish how the wearing of religious symbols affects the fundamental rights and freedoms of others,” the UN states.
The experts are asking the Canadian government to provide them with more information about the proposed law and to explain the specific measures in place that protect freedom of religion as well as the particular policies that protect religious minorities and guarantee non-discrimination at the various levels of government.
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“Please indicate how the restrictions in the giving and receiving of certain services with faces uncovered are reasonable and therefore not discriminatory,” the letter states.
The letter is signed by Fernand de Varennes, UN special rapporteur on minority issues; E. Tendayi Achiume, UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance; and Ahmed Shaheed, UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.