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Editorials Globe editorial: Quebec’s veil law has egg on its face

Day by day, Quebec's Bill 62 gets curiouser and curiouser. The law, which is almost certainly unconstitutional, was created by politics, and keeps spawning new opportunities for political conflict. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau criticized the law and edged a step closer to the federal government becoming involved, while the provincial opposition Parti Québecois,which goes to bed every night fantasizing about fights with Ottawa, said that if it were the government, it would use the notwithstanding clause to protect the law. So, triples of constitutional crises all around.

And all of this for a law that even its authors can't explain, let alone justify. The bill's wording implies that anyone in the province who wears a Muslim face-covering garment, such a niqab or burka, will have to remove it while receiving government services, from hospitals to libraries. Last week, Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée insisted that's how it will be applied. She said that it will, for example, prevent a woman in a niqab from riding a public bus.

But, as a demonstration of Bill 62's impartiality and lack of religious bias, she said it will also bar Quebeckers from riding the bus while wearing any identify-obscuring item – such as sunglasses.

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This week, Ms. Vallée partly reversed field. Under her latest interpretation of Bill 62, someone will only need to show their face at the moment of receiving a government service. In the case of the hypothetical public transit passenger, she told reporters that a veil might only need to be removed in the unusual circumstances where a passenger is paying a fare that involves showing a photo ID. So the sunglasses ban is gone, maybe.

But the minister also said that all students would be required to have their faces uncovered: "Faces uncovered in the classroom," said Ms. Vallée. "Faces uncovered during an exam." Her ministry also gave reporters a handout which explained that the law requires faces to be uncovered "during the receipt of schooling."

On Wednesday, however, Minister of Higher Education Hélène David said that the law might not require a student to be veil-less, and that she'll be leaving it up to universities and colleges to figure out what to do, or not do.

It has reached the stage where the near total confusion about Bill 62's application is its only virtue. Are the Quebec Liberals trying to undermine their own legislation? Or just torpedo their own electoral chances?

Premier Philippe Couillard's government should never have created Bill 62. It should have responded to this imaginary crisis – the fact that an extremely small number of Muslim citizens cover their faces in public – by pointing out that no new law is needed to address this non-problem. It could have said, folks, our government doesn't see any reason to interfere with some citizens' religious freedom, even if polls say that doing so might be popular. It should have left it to the PQ and Coalition Avenir Québec to run on this.

But politicians can read polls, and they know that the idea of banning or limiting the niqab in public has appeal. So the Liberals decided to pass a law that signals to voters that the government is willing to ban the niqab, while, in the justice minister's latest telling, doing as little as possible to actually ban the niqab. It's a weird campaign of dog whistle politics, except that everyone can hear it. Even if this law never ends up unveiling many or any veiled women, it sets a terrible precedent.

Bill 62 is officially called the "act to foster adherence to state religious neutrality and, in particular, to provide a framework for requests for accommodations on religious grounds in certain bodies." It's a lovely label. Too bad it doesn't reflect what's in the box.

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The religious neutrality of the state is a good and necessary thing. It's also the law across Canada, enshrined in the Charter of Rights. Anyone who works for the state and represents all of us should be religiously neutral. Someone working for the government shouldn't be allowed to use that platform to proselytize for their faith. A public transit driver shouldn't be passing out religious literature as you board the bus.

But Bill 62's ban on the veil when receiving a public service has nothing to do with any of that. The law isn't about preventing the agents of the state from interfering with religious freedom, or taking sides on matters of conscience. On the contrary, this is a law that orders agents of the state to take sides, and to refuse to interact with someone unless that person removes their article of faith. It also forces citizens to choose between their faith and their state. It's the opposite of religious neutrality. And for what? What's the problem being fixed here?

Yes, a lot of Canadians don't much like the idea of a woman in a full-face covering. According to an Angus Reid poll from earlier this year, only a third of Canadians support the wearing of the niqab or burka in public. These Canadians are entitled to that opinion; after all, that's what freedom of conscience, speech, religion and non-religion are about.

It's your right to not wear a veil – and the vast majority of Canadian Muslim women do not wear a veil. It is your right to question, challenge and criticize the practice.

But demanding that the law force your neighbour to shed her religious garments is no different than if she demanded the imposition of a law forcing you to wear them.

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