Ceterum censeo Bill 21 esse delendam: Furthermore, I consider that Bill 21 must be destroyed (with apologies to Cato the Elder)
Editor’s note: When Albertans speak of Quebec it is mostly to register frustration over blocked pipe lines or the inequities of federal equalization payments. But socially, Quebec really is different from the rest of Canada. In a time when political correctness has a vice grip on the West, governments in la Belle Province have several times introduced bills that, if approved, would have prevented religious minorities from openly wearing faith symbols while engaged in public service. The concept of maintaining religious neutrality by banning the public wearing of religious symbols is so popular that last year the present government of Quebec ran, and won, on a promise to finally implement such a law. Most Canadians think Quebec’s approach to state neutrality is, at the very least, wrongheaded. But if pressed, they might have trouble explaining why. In the following article, Faith Beyond Belief’s Quebec coordinator Ricardo Fortune explains the unintended consequences that will result from passage of Quebec’s Bill 21, including that it constitutes a direct attack on essential Charter rights, the very thing our Constitution was designed to prevent.
By Ricardo Fortuné—FBB Québec Coordinator, Apologist, Speaker
The English term “secularism”, often employed to translate the French word “laïcité”, does not properly communicate the essence of what the French word means to Quebecers. Simply put, the secularism Quebecers are referring to is an ideology that extols the religious neutrality of the state. In principle, such secularism is supposedly based on the principles of religious neutrality, separation of church and state, respect for religious liberties, and the equal treatment of citizens (Milot, 2008, pp. 17-21). But in practice, the secularisation of Quebec has expressed itself in a vigorous emancipation from the power once exercised over public life by the Roman Catholic Church. Initially it seemed the embrace of laicity had solved the tension between state and religion, but the 2007 crisis that was prompted by the “reasonable accommodations problem” has caused many to wonder to what extent the government must go to accommodate people of various religions.
Up to now the principle of secularism has only been applied to government institutions. However, if Bill 21 passes this summer, secularism will be extended to the dress code of provincial employees. The bill seeks to affirm the secularity of the state, and also forbid government employees who are in position of authority to wear ostentatious religious symbols. Some see in this bill the final concretisation of the secularization process (Beaudoin, 2019). But for many, it is a government smokescreen intended to hide its xenophobia and religious intolerance (OIRD, 2019). This polarisation occurs because the government has made little effort to moderate public debate and has, in fact, shut down any dialogue while leaving many questions unanswered. Satisfied that 65% of the population supports his bill, Prime Minister Legault disregards the irritated minority. Has he forgotten that he is the prime minister of 100% of Quebecers, not just the roughly two-thirds majority who support him, or that a truly impartial state must watch over the liberties of all (Milot, 2008, p. 20)? Even worse, only those sympathetic to the bill have been invited to comment, meaning no Christian group or other religious organizations will participate in the discussions (Gloutnay, 2019).
Yet despite the government’s efforts to ram Bill 21 through the legislative process, it clearly fails to solve the chronic problem of “reasonable accommodation” for Quebec’s religious minorities. For example, it appears that the bill will not prevent a Muslim student from requesting to be exempted from exams during Ramadan or stop a Sikh student from wearing his kirpan in school. These kinds of requests will continue to be accommodated, since the bill only targets the employees of the state in positions of authority. These are strong indications that “reasonable accommodations” concerns were probably not as problematic as the media had depicted. They also hint strongly that the government had other motivations to promulgate such a radical law.
Why should the secularism of the state manifest itself in the dress code of the government’s staff? Bill 21 does not give an answer to this central question. Nevertheless, the ruling Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) should be required to demonstrate how wearing these religious symbols is inconsistent with the idea of religious neutrality (Plante, 2019). It has been asserted by “Les intellectuels pour la laïcité” that “the neutrality of the state expresses itself by the neutrality of the image [presented by] its representatives and agents…” (2010, pp. 1, translated by me). Strangely enough, the veracity of this claim, which has not been proven or demonstrated, has simply been assumed by many intellectuals and journalists.
Arguably, the state should be neutral, but it does not follow from this that its employees must look neutral, but rather that the state’s actions cannot be religiously motivated. In a democracy, the power belongs to the people; therefore, it is the state that must reflect the image of the population, not the other way around. Government staff is drawn from the people and is for the service of the people. Hence, if there is a diversity of religious or non-religious positions, genders, and ethnicities within a population, it follows that the same diversity should be found amongst the employees who serve them. This idea of equitable representation is well understood by Prime Minister Legault, since he went out of his way to create a ministerial council that would include an equitable number of males and females.
By restricting what state-employed staff can wear, the government loses its neutrality. It makes itself a judge of what is a legitimate expression of religion without giving any justification for it. Furthermore, who can objectively define a neutral appearance? Does a woman without a veil look neutral or anti-religious? Your answer will be different depending on whether you approach this question from a North American perspective or an Iranian one. The real neutrality to which secularism aspires aims to refrain from favoring or hindering one position over another (Milot, 2008, p. 19). Moreover, the separation of Church and state does not exclusively mean that religion should not interfere with the affairs of the state.
Historically, separation of church and state meant that the state should not interfere with the affairs of the church. Both “Les intellectuels pour la laïcité” and Bill 21, omit the aspect of not hindering religion in their conception of secularism. They seem to be saying that no religion is favored since they are all equally hindered. Previously, to favor secularism meant to be tolerant toward all religions, not intolerant, as Bill 21 seems to be.
The most controversial aspect of this bill is that it clearly contravenes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. Aware of this, the CAQ plans to modify the latter and use the “notwithstanding clause” to avoid repercussions from the former. These actions would allow it to proclaim and enforce the law while preventing any court challenges for five years. To many Quebecers this manoeuvre communicates a total disregard for democracy. Nevertheless, what the government is doing directly contradicts the spirit of the law, even if it is within the letter of the law. Its use of the federal constitution’s notwithstanding clause amounts to a frank and shameless admission that the CAQ has no desire to debate the issue or hear what opponents have to say.
Traditionally the goal of secularism was to promote social cohesion in a multicultural society by allowing individuals to enjoy freedom of conscience and religion in a way equitable for all. “In refraining from favoring any religion and in protecting freedom of conscience, a secular state is guaranteeing religious and societal plurality.” (Les Intellectuels pour la laïcité , 2010). The irony of Bill 21 is that in the name of religious freedom, it undermines religious freedom. In the name of freedom of conscience, it undermines freedom of conscience. In the name of equality, it creates inequality. Due to these inconsistencies, Bill 21 refutes itself and should not become law.
Beaudoin, L. (2019, Avril 08). Laïcité et progressisme. Le Devoir, https://www.ledevoir.com/opinion/chroniques/551662/laicite-et-progressisme.
Bombardier, D. (2019, Février 27). Balado: À haute voix. Les Québecois et la religion, première partie. Qub radio.
Gloutnay, F. (2019, Avril 24). Laïcité: aucun groupe religieux invité en commission parlementaire. Présence, information religieuse, http://presence-info.ca/article/politique/laicite-aucun-groupe-religieux-invite-en-commission-parlementaire?fbclid=IwAR3v1ymk-NLjfU6d5kYX7IGEH34_i1xUlT6ZbuBBUQmj9e84mJMQzJHF4mA.
Les Intellectuels pour la laïcité . (2010). Énoncé du Rassemblement pour la laïcité.
Milot, M. (2008). La laïcité. Novalis.
OIRD. (2019). Laïcité: 250 universitaires contre le projet de loi 21. Le Devoir, https://www.ledevoir.com/opinion/idees/551547/laicite-250-universitaires-contre-le-projet-de-loi-21.
Plante, C. (2019, Avril 15). Laïcité: la CAQ doit démontrer que le port de signes religieux pose problème, selon QS. Le Devoir, https://www.ledevoir.com/politique/quebec/552215/laicite-la-caq-doit-demontrer-qu-il-y-a-un-probleme-selon-qs.