How Quebec's proposed ban on religious symbols will work
The Quebec government introduced a controversial bill Thursday aimed at preventing some public-sector employees from wearing overt religious symbols while at work.
CTVNews.ca has put together a look at who the bill applies to, which symbols it may cover and what the chances are of the bill becoming law.
Why is this happening?
The proposed legislation was introduced Thursday as Bill 21, titled “An Act representing the laicity of the State.” Laicity is a term used in a similar sense as secularism – the idea that Quebec’s government should be religiously agnostic.
The bill takes no issue with religious symbols themselves, but says a “stricter duty of restraint … should be established” when it comes to people on the public payroll wearing such symbols when dealing with the public from a position of authority.
Quebec Premier Francois Legault promised to deliver a religious symbols ban in the run-up to last fall’s provincial election.
More broadly, the wearing of religious symbols in public-sector workplaces has been the subject of debate in Quebec for over a decade. A previous government tried unsuccessfully to enact a total ban on the displays of religious symbols in public institutions. The new legislation does not go that far.
Who is affected?
The government has said the bill would generally apply to people in positions of authority at public-sector workplaces during times when they are on the job.
The full list of people covered by the ban in the version of the bill introduced Thursday specifically mentions police and other peace officers, as well as school principals, vice-principals and teachers.
The ban would also apply to a number of people in the province’s legal sector, including the province’s justice minister, government lawyers, justices of the peace, sheriffs and their deputies, and court clerks and their deputies.
Other positions covered by the ban would include the speaker and deputy speaker of the National Assembly, bankruptcy registrars, public inquiry commissioners, and members and commissioners of various public agencies.
Who is exempt?
People who have their face covered because of “health or a handicap” may keep it covered when dealing with the public. The same applies to anyone normally subject to the bill who needs to cover their face as a requirement for performing their job or certain tasks within it.
There is also a grandfather clause, exempting school administrators, teachers, peace officers, lawyers, justices of the peace and some other legal officers for as long as they remain in the same position with the same employer.
What symbols does the bill cover?
It’s not entirely clear.
The bill only states that people in the positions it covers “are prohibited from wearing religious symbols in the exercise of their functions.” It does not define “religious symbols,” meaning some specific guidelines may only be established through court decisions.
The government has previous suggested that the ban will include symbols of Muslim faith such as the hijab, niqab, burka and chador.
Christian symbols are also likely to be targeted. The government has said it is working toward a motion to remove the crucifix that hangs above the speaker’s chair in the National Assembly.
What about face coverings?
In addition to the ban on religious symbols, the bill proposes to mandate that people in certain positions must keep their faces uncovered.
This list is significantly broader than the one of people who would be subject to the religious-symbols ban. It includes all MNAs, elected municipal politicians and school boar commissioners, as well as all physicians, dentists and midwives practicing in publicly operated facilities, and anyone working at a government-subsidized home child-care centre.
Members of the public would also be required to have uncovered faces when interacting with government workers “where doing so is necessary to allow their identity to be verified or for security reasons,” unless they have health, occupational or disability-related reasons for covering their face.
The bill also allows for many public-sector agencies, including transit operators, schools, health-care providers and social service providers, to require uncovered faces for anyone whom they grant financial assistance or with whom they enter into a contract.
Is this legal?
Bill 21 is likely to be challenged in court, but the Quebec government appears to believe it has full legal authority to enact the ban.
The bill contains a number of provisions designed to protect it from legal challenges, saying it will take effect “despite” being contrary to certain provisions in the province’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and “notwithstanding” the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees all Canadians freedom of religion and freedom of expression.
Invoking the notwithstanding clause could prove particularly controversial, as it has only been used a handful of times in Canadian history.
Will this really happen?
Legault’s CAQ party currently holds a significant majority in the National Assembly, meaning Bill 21’s passage is likely a formality.
However, there has been a significant groundswell of public opposition to the bill, including the English Montreal School Board saying it would allow its personnel to continue to wear religious symbols, arguing that a ban would be contrary to the board’s values of “diversity, acceptance, tolerance and respect.” Teachers’ unions have also been vocal opponents of the proposed ban.
Haniyfa Scott, who teaches kindergarten in Montreal and wears a hijab, told CTV News Channel Thursday that she had received significant support from parents and fellow teachers.
“Montreal thinks that it’s a cosmopolitan city, but how can you be cosmopolitan if you’re going to target certain people and make them feel like they’re not wanted?” she said.
Significant public backlash could theoretically lead to Legault rethinking some or all aspects of the bill. He has said his goal with the legislation is to be a “unifying” factor in the province.
However, polling data suggests that major opposition to the entire bill is likely. Daniel Beland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, told CTV News Channel that there appears to be a “large majority” supporting a ban on judges and police officers wearing religious symbols, while support is lower for other sectors under the proposed ban.
Whether the bill is modified from its original form or not, it is likely to be challenged in the courts, meaning a judge might well have the final say.
With files from The Canadian Press