In late August, the Parti Quebecois government of Pauline Marois began leaking the details of their proposed Charter of Quebec Values, which would severely limit religious and cultural expression in state-run workplaces. If the bill, which will be introduced to the National Assembly later this Fall, becomes law it would ban the wearing of religious attire by state employees, including crosses and crucifixes by Christians and the kippa by Jews.
The proposal comes three years after France banned face coverings which effectively prohibited Muslims the wearing of veils such as the burka or hajib in public places, and a year after the Netherlands enacted a partial ban on such articles of clothing including in court cases. In 2008, Quebec’s Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences, the so-called Bouchard-Taylor Commission, advised the Quebec government to make “reasonable accommodations” to foreign cultures such as Muslims.
The government bill would “entrench the religious neutrality of the state and the secular nature of public institutions” by banning “conspicuous” religious symbols in public institutions such as courts, schools, hospitals, government offices, and daycare centers, and prohibit workers in these places from wearing “overt” religious and cultural symbols such as crosses and crucifixes, turbans, kippas, and Muslim veils such as the niqab, hijab, and burka.
Bernard Drainville, Minister Reponsible for Democratic Institutions, said, “when we talk of a conspicuous symbol, we’re talking about a very apparent, very demonstrative symbol that sends a clear message: I am a believer and this is my religion.”
When Drainville introduced the charter of Quebec values he called it “a beautiful day for Quebec.”
Religious groups have condemned the proposal.
Montreal Archbishop Christian Lépine said, “I think it is a violation of the right to have a religion, and to be religious.” He elaborated that the proposal “is not only about private religion, private life. It’s also about public life.”
Bruce Clemenger, president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, said the Charter of Quebec Values is not neutral because it does not treat all people of faith equally as some religions require “the personal display of symbols.” Clemenger said, “it states that certain religious people who are otherwise identifiable based on their appearance should conform to the practices and beliefs of the majority.”
EFC vice president and general legal counsel Don Hutchinson said it “is inconsistent with clear democratic, religious and multicultural principles as set out in Canadian human rights legislation, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, multiple Supreme Court of Canada decisions, and the values that Canadians hold dear.”
The Catholic Civil Rights League said, “the proposed ban on religious symbols is clearly an issue of religious freedom,” and suggested that “such a sweeping ban” might not “withstand a constitutional challenge.” The CCRL said, “Canada’s understanding of secularism, among other elements, is that the state does not favour any one religion, but rather welcomes all.” The CCRL said in it’s press release the proposal raises the question of “just how far the state can go in imposing religious conformity on its citizens.”
B’nai Brith Canada, a Jewish human rights group, said it will challenge the law in the courts.
There was also a political backlash.
Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney said, “we are very concerned about any proposal that would discriminate unfairly against people based on their religion.” He said, the federal government, “will vigourously defend the constitutional rights of Canadians and if that means taking a legal approach, we would do so vigourously.”
Criticism has come from across the political spectrum with both the NDP leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau. Mulcair said workers should not have to choose between their jobs and their faith. He described people losing their job for expressing their faith as “intolerable” in Canada. Trudeau said the Parti Quebecois bill was “divisive identity politics.”
Brian Lilley of the Sun News Network, was clearer, calling the charter proposal, “an outright attack on individual freedom.” Lilley said on his blog that the proposal is rooted in a fear of “Muslim women covering their faces in public,” but that the PQ government is using a “sledgehammer approach to the fundamental rights and freedoms of all Quebecers.”
The National Post’s Jonathan Kay said of the proposal, “face-covering is what this is really about,” seeking to ban the burka and naqib, with “turbans, crosses, and Stars of David” becoming “collateral damage stuck in for the sake of ostensible religious neutrality.” He said while there seems to be legitimate reasons for targeting an “anti-social and backwards custom” soon “devout followers of many faiths may … pay the price” of Quebec’s values charter.
Writing in the National Post, Charles Taylor, co-author of the Consultation Committee’s report on reasonable accommodation, said public institutions are expected to be neutral but individuals are not, and that a ban on wearing religious symbols limits employees’ religious freedom.
A poll from Forum Research found that the country is divided on the proposal with 42 per cent supporting it and 47 per cent opposed. It also found that 58 per cent of Quebec respondents support the bill.