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Pearl Eliadis

Will a colourful Hermès scarf disrupt classrooms? Add to ...

Pauline Marois’s PQ government is planning to make good on a promise to introduce a secularism charter that will oust religious minorities from public life.

No one outside government has seen the draft bill yet, but we know a few things.

Public sector workplaces will be scrubbed clean of the sartorial evidence of faith. Government departments, public services, police, judicial and legal services will be purged of reasonable accommodation. People will be able to go about their daily lives without the risk of seeing educators, doctors or professors who appear to be anything other than lapsed Christmas-and-confirmation Catholics.

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Of course, crosses, Christmas trees, Christian prayers at town hall meetings and the like are acceptable because, they tell us, such things are not religious; they are cultural and thus consistent with “Quebec values.”

This proposal blatantly violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but the PQ will likely invoke the notwithstanding clause, so that the new rules are protected from Charter challenge. That leaves Quebec’s own Charter of human rights and freedoms. Quebec’s human rights commission issued an opinion years ago that it is discriminatory to prevent religious women from wearing a headscarf in educational institutions. Nothing suggests that the commission is likely to change its position today.

Most distressing is the message to students: tolerance and diversity are fine, as long as everyone looks and acts the same way.

Of all places, schools and universities are the ones that most need to learn and live the values of equality, multiculturalism and intellectual diversity. Research is clear: The younger the child, the better the chances that these values will be transmitted. To its credit, Quebec has given up a religious curriculum and now offers a nondenominational course in ethics. But this is no substitute for walking the talk and fostering a genuinely tolerant learning environment by example.

As far as universities go, early indications are that higher learning institutions will be able to opt out. If so, that will likely mean that Concordia and McGill universities will opt out, leaving francophone religious minorities at a distinct disadvantage.

What is the harm that these drastic rules are trying to prevent? It is true that there are important exceptions to reasonable accommodation. Excessive costs that impose real hardship are an example, as are genuine risks to health and safety. Repeat: “genuine.”

Where is the evidence in Canada that head scarves (“ostentatious” black cotton as opposed to, say, colourful Hermès), turbans or kippas will injure children, disrupt classrooms or be used to communicate women’s lack of equality?

There are perfectly good reasons to worry about religion these days. No one in Quebec, at least no one I know, wants to live in a society where religion oppresses women. Or where a political candidate cannot run successfully for office without declaring allegiance to the King of Kings. Or study in an educational system where creationism is positioned as a credible alternative to evolution anywhere than in a comparative religion class.

But these are not the concerns of this secularism charter. Instead, it will severely limit a fundamental liberty, one that that is protected by law, and subordinate it to nebulous ethnocentric values.

Religious minorities throughout history have had to resort to hiding evidence of their faith in public so that they can be who they really are in private. Quebec is now contemplating a society where people will be forced to hide again if they want to be part of public life in its many dimensions.

Pearl Eliadis is a Montreal-based human rights lawyer and teaches civil liberties at McGill’s Faculty of Law and is a full member of its Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism.

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