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Editorials Quebec passes a terrible law, and for the worst reasons

Quebec Premier Francois Legault is applauded by Quebec Minister of Immigration, Diversity and Inclusiveness Simon Jolin Barrette as he stands to vote a legislation on secularism at the National Assembly in Quebec City, Sunday, June 16.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Quebec Premier François Legault and his Coalition Avenir Québec government have finally given the majority of the province’s voters what they want: a law that sets in stone the belief that "the Quebec nation considers state laicity to be of fundamental importance,” as Bill 21 does, and which bans a broad swath of female public employees, from lawyers to police officers to teachers, from wearing Muslim head and face coverings.

That’s not how the bill’s supporters will put it, of course. They will point out that the law, adopted when the government invoked closure on Sunday, prevents men and women of any religion from wearing clothing or other items that have clear religious symbolism, such as the Jewish kippah, the Sikh turban and the Christian clerical collar, in certain government jobs.

But there is ample evidence, including a poll taken in May, that support for the law is based on a prejudice against Muslims, and that it is not a coincidence that the perceived need for such a law was born in the wake of the horror of 9/11, and only reached maturity after Quebec’s debate about religious accommodation that culminated in the Bouchard-Taylor report seven years later.

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It is clear that a majority of Quebeckers want to live in a secular state, and that, for many of them, a Muslim woman in a veil somehow feels like a threat to that ideal. If the garb and accessories of other religions have to be sacrificed in order to provide wider grounds to ban the veil, then so be it.

And so, after the fits and starts of the Parti Québécois’s odious Charter of Quebec Values in 2013, and Bill 62, a failed attempt in 2015 by the Quebec Liberal government of the day to prevent Muslim women from wearing face coverings while receiving government services, Mr. Legault has finally delivered the goods.

“There are collective rights, and Quebeckers have a right to tell the rest of Canada, ‘This is how we live in Quebec,’” Mr. Legault said after the bill passed.

But what has Mr. Legault really accomplished by making Quebec the first subnational government in North America to ban Muslim headscarves and collateral religious symbols?

Well, to start, he and his government have pushed through a poorly conceived law that will face stiff challenges in court. That means Quebeckers can’t put this issue behind them. The first legal challenge to the law was filed Monday, in fact, and is being brought by the same group that successfully derailed Bill 62.

The CAQ government took the trouble of invoking the notwithstanding clause in the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms to inoculate Bill 21 against challenges based on religious freedoms. But, as the fight against Bill 62 showed, there are parts of Canada’s Constitution that the notwithstanding clause can’t touch, and which can have something to say about cases such as this.

As well, Bill 21 is vague about what defines a religious symbol, a flaw that at one point led reporters to ask whether a wedding ring could conceivably be banned under the law. Mr. Legault dismissed the idea, but given that in many Christian wedding ceremonies the rings are blessed by the officiating priest, it is hard to see how they are a less overt religious symbol than a headscarf or crucifix.

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That lack of a clear definition will make it difficult to apply the law evenly; given that the law also fails to provide clear penalties for violating the ban, a court could rule it is too vague to stand.

But the worst thing Mr. Legault has done is to undermine religious freedom in Canada. Even if the notwithstanding clause provides him with the tool to do so, that won’t prevent Canada’s name from being tarnished around the world for an abuse of so fundamental a human right.

There is no question that the Quebec state, as with all governments in Canada, should be secular. But Ottawa and the other provinces are proof that governments can preserve the right of public employees – police officers, judges and teachers included – to display their religious affiliation without compromising the separation of church and state.

It is monstrously unjust that a Muslim woman or Jewish man is now forced by the Quebec state to choose between their employment and their personal beliefs, while a person with government-approved beliefs about the sanctity of laicity is exempt from such a dilemma. This is a terrible day for Quebec, and for Canada.

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