Quebec's Orthodox Jewish community appeared for the first time on Wednesday before a National Assembly committee, taking up an unexpected cause - fighting a bill that would ban the wearing of the Muslim niqab when receiving government services.
The Jewish Orthodox Council for Community Relations said by placing gender rights above religious rights, the bill would create a hierarchy of individual rights and freedoms that would be challenged before the courts. The group warned the government against adopting "hard and fast rules" that could exacerbate social tensions surrounding religious minorities.
"The government's interpretation comes in conflict with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, both the Canadian Charter and the Quebec Charter," said the group's legal counsel, Lionel Perez. "It will lead to court challenges, and if it leads to court challenges there will be more media coverage. If there is more media coverage, it will lead to more scrutiny … and it will exacerbate the social tensions."
Hearings resumed Tuesday on the government's proposed legislation that prohibits the wearing of the Islamic face veil, the niqab, when receiving or delivering government services. However, the bill stops short of barring public servants from wearing all other religious symbols.
The legislation stems from a long debate in Quebec on reasonable accommodation of religious groups. While the bill focuses on the controversy over the wearing of the niqab by Islamic women, Montreal's Orthodox Jewish leaders expressed fear their community may also be targeted eventually. For instance, they are concerned that the accommodation allowed to Orthodox Jewish women to have a female examiner during drivers' tests could be revoked.
The community became part of the controversy over reasonable accommodation in 2006, when it requested that a Montreal YMCA install frosted windows on its building. The Hasidic Jewish Congregation Yetev Lev wanted to prevent young boys and teenagers studying at the synagogue just across the street from the gym from having a full view of the women exercising.
The media coverage of the incident, along with that of controversies involving Islamic groups, created an outcry that led to public hearings on reasonable accommodation known as the Bouchard-Taylor commission, which tabled a report in 2008. It was followed by the tabling of a bill last spring.
"The Jewish Orthodox community has been implicated through different accommodations or lack thereof," Mr. Perez explained. "Because of the mediatisation and the impact it will have on Quebeckers, we felt compelled to be able to respond and express our point of view."
The group contends that the government is going about dealing with reasonable accommodation in the wrong way by targeting a specific group - fundamentalist Islamic women who wear the veil.
Mr. Perez, who is also a Montreal city councillor, said there is no simple solution. The ruling by the Ontario Court of Appeal stating that a victim of an alleged sexual assault could wear her niqab in court if it didn't impede the holding of a fair trial was an example of how each situation needed to be treated differently, he said.
"It comes to demonstrate that you can't have hard and fast rules when it comes to individual rights and freedoms. It has to be really looked at on the circumstances," Mr. Perez argued.
He said the government was taking a step in the right direction by underscoring the "religious neutrality of the state." But the boundaries of state secularism need to be clearly defined, Mr. Perez added; otherwise, it could impede religious freedom.
"The government has to be equal towards its citizens, meaning that it doesn't distinguish between religions. And it has to ensure that it does not impose its view, whether religious or secular," Mr. Perez said.
The council's arguments clashed with groups demanding a much tougher bill that would underscore Quebec's values as a pluralistic and secular society.
Former Montreal Bar Association president Julie Latour, who appeared before the committee Tuesday on behalf of the Intellectuels pour la laïcité, called on the government to strike a balance between individual rights and the civic responsibilities of citizens. In so doing, government should impose its neutrality by prohibiting all civil servants from displaying religious symbols.
According to Ms. Latour, the government has a duty to protect collective values such as gender equality or sexual orientation against restrictions made by certain religious rules.
"The neutrality of the state and the separation between the state and the church should be stated clearly to make sure that this remains as a principle," she said.
Editor's Note: The Jewish Orthodox Council for Community Relations of Quebec presented a brief to a Quebec National Assembly committee that said, among things, that a section in a bill that would limit the receiving or delivering of public services by persons wearing a facial veil may be constitutionally invalid. Incorrect information appeared in a headline on Thursday in print and in an earlier online version. This version has been corrected.