A Quebec Superior Court judge ruled this week that the province’s law banning teachers, police officers and other government employees from wearing religious dress is an infringement of the constitutional right to religious freedom. But we already knew that.
As Justice Marc-André Blanchard wrote, one can “easily understand” that forcing a person to choose between their religious beliefs and their employment “has a cruel consequence that dehumanizes those it targets.”
The government of Premier François Legault certainly understood this, because it inoculated the 2019 “Act respecting the laicity of the State,” better known as Bill 21, against a court challenge by invoking the so-called notwithstanding clause.
That’s the part of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that allows governments to explicitly violate such basic rights as freedom of religion or expression, if doing so suits the political agenda of the party in power. (To date, it has never been used for another purpose.)
Because of the notwithstanding clause, Justice Blanchard had no choice but to uphold a law that prevents Muslims, Jews and Sikhs from wearing head coverings, or Christians from wearing a visible cross, while on the job in government positions of authority.
The workers affected include police officers, judges, crown prosecutors, school principals and teachers. People who held such jobs before the law was enacted are grandfathered, but they lose that protection if they are promoted or change positions – effectively “trapping” them, Justice Blanchard said.
The judge did say, however, that the law cannot apply to members of Quebec’s National Assembly, or to teachers in the province’s English-language school system. Their rights are protected by sections of the Charter that can’t be touched by the notwithstanding clause: minority language education rights, and the right of any citizen to stand for election.
But the bulk of the law stands. It’s a victory for Premier Legault, and for the two-thirds of Quebec’s population that supports the bill’s intention of enforcing a particular vision of secularization.
For them, the emphasis in the rest of Canada on multiculturalism is a threat to the survival of the French language. That fear, though frequently incited by politicians seeking political advantage, shouldn’t be casually dismissed.
French-speaking Quebeckers have a long memory of maltreatment at the hands of anglo Canada, an era that ended with the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. La revolution tranquille gained francophones equitable representation in the ranks of the federal bureaucracy, liberalized the province and abruptly rejected the Roman Catholic Church’s longstanding control over education, and its influence in society.
The past 60 years have brought massive, positive, change in Quebec, but old grievances remain fresh. Voters twice rejected independence, in the 1980 and 1995 referendums, but they still see the struggle to maintain their language and culture in a sea of English-speaking North Americans as a central role of their provincial government.
For many in Quebec, the notwithstanding clause is not so much a tool to undermine religious freedom as it is a way of preventing the rest of Canada from dictating how the province should manage its affairs.
That said, Bill 21 is a big mistake, for two reasons.
First, because it’s a basic infringement of the kind of individual rights that Quebeckers and Canadians hold dear. This country’s history, all the way back to 1763, is one of tensions over religion being overcome by ever greater religious tolerance. French-speaking Catholics were once the group that was most discriminated against.
Second, because the law is so clearly unnecessary.
No one can argue that the provinces are not run by secular governments, or that Canada is not a secular country. Yet they are also multicultural, with equal citizens of all faiths and none.
There are elected officials in Parliament and at all levels of government who wear religious dress on the job. The same goes for the entire public service. No one thinks they are living in an theocracy because a local police officer wears a Sikh turban, or a teacher wears a hijab.
Quebec is an advanced and liberal society, and its secular status is no more fragile than Canada’s as a whole. The province doesn’t need a misguided suppression of religious freedom to preserve it.
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