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Opinion The Quebec government’s secularism bill stinks to high heaven

Peter Stockland is a senior writer at the think tank Cardus and the publisher of Convivium.ca.

Premier of Quebec François Legault, seen here on Dec. 7, 2018, insists that legally prohibiting the kinds of hats or jewellery some religious believers can wear is something Quebeckers told him to do when they gave him a majority government.

MARTIN OUELLET-DIOTTE/AFP/Getty Images

In 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada rejected the idea that people who object to violations of their religious freedom can simply go somewhere else, calling it “morally repugnant."

Now, 15 years later, the government of Quebec has introduced legislation embodying that very repulsive notion. Its long-feared assault on religious freedom effectively tells a cohort of public employees, most notably teachers, that they are banned from wearing symbols of their faith at work. If they don’t like it, they can always go and get another job.

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The initiative lets the state abuse its power as an employer to violate the most profound personal autonomy of citizens. Compounding that infamy, Premier François Legault will use the notwithstanding clause, which will override the courts if they strike down the proposed law.

Mr. Legault insists that legally prohibiting the kinds of hats or jewellery some religious believers can wear is something Quebeckers told him to do when they gave him a majority government. Someone should remind him that a foul act isn’t made palatable by the number of people who agree to ignore its smell.

By timing alone, the religious-symbol ban is a particularly malodorous piece of legislation. Women in New Zealand, after all, have collectively begun wearing head scarves in solidarity with the 50 people slain by a gunman at two Christchurch mosques.

Closer to home, Canadians have been horrified by recent physical attacks on Catholic priests during the celebration of mass, one of them a stabbing in Montreal’s Oratoire Saint-Joseph. Quebec City, meanwhile, still faces the sentencing appeal of murderer Alexandre Bissonnette, who shot six people at a mosque in la Vieille Capitale two years ago.

Supporters of government restrictions on public religious symbols will protest that there’s no causal relation between such prohibitions and heinous anti-religious violence. After all, it is true that legislation itself doesn’t kill, people do – a Jesuitical distinction the National Rifle Association loves. But laws do not only compel or prohibit: they express, and therefore foster.

Mr. Legault is categorical that the new anti-religious-symbols legislation is an essential tool to protect Quebec’s language, values and difference. How a teacher’s head adorned with a kippah, hijab or turban would somehow be less able to vocalize French, he does not say. Nor does he articulate why a wildlife officer wearing a turban or a lapel crucifix would offend the vaunted Quebec value of attachment to the collectivity.

His very silence communicates, without a word, the real message this week’s legislation puts into action: Religion is a problem that must be legislatively attacked and contained, separated out, rendered subordinate to the political will of Quebec City. Should violence follow, it would certainly not be Mr. Legault’s fault – but equally certainly, we should not be surprised if vicious fanatics take it as some kind of licence, all the same.

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It was to spare us such surprises, at least in part, that the Supreme Court of Canada insisted on the broadest reasonable definition for liberty of faith in an ordered, democratic society in its seminal case on religious freedom in 1985.

“The essence of … freedom of religion is the right to entertain such religious beliefs as a person chooses, the right to declare religious beliefs openly and without fear of hindrance or reprisal, and the right to manifest religious belief by worship and practice or by teaching and dissemination,” Chief Justice Brian Dickson wrote in R v. Big M Drug Mart Ltd., a case that backed the acquittal of a Calgary store for doing business on a Sunday.

Nineteen years later, the Supreme Court went further, finding in Syndicat Northcrest v Amselem that once a religious freedom claim had been accepted by the court, the onus shifts to those seeking to limit the liberty to show it serves the public good. Saying “take your hat off because we don’t like it” self-evidently fails the test. So does saying “if you don’t like our rules go elsewhere,” as the majority decision emphasized: “It would be both insensitive and morally repugnant to intimate that the appellants simply move elsewhere if they take issue with a clause restricting their right to freedom of religion.”

Whatever Mr. Legault now says he is doing on Quebeckers’ behalf, we can only hope that in their goodness, wisdom and common sense, the province’s citizens will reject it as soundly as the court did years ago.

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