June 19, 2019

CANADA: Quebec Is The First Jurisdiction In North America To Ban Public-Sector Employees From Wearing Religious Garb On The Job.

Wall Street Journal
written by Kim Mackrael
Monday June 17, 2019

OTTAWA—Quebec will prohibit teachers, police officers and certain other public-sector employees from wearing religious symbols while on the job, making the French-speaking Canadian province the first North American jurisdiction in decades to enact such a ban.

The new Quebec law, which also covers judges and provincial prosecutors, applies to all religious symbols including the crucifix, the government has said. Civil-liberties groups have argued it will disproportionately affect religious minorities such as Muslim women who wear head scarfs and Sikh men who wear turbans.

The law exempts public-sector employees as long as they remain in their current positions. That exemption is lost if an employee is transferred or promoted, or if their mandate in a particular job ends. The law passed late Sunday in Quebec’s legislature by a vote of 73 to 35, after a marathon weekend session that saw the ruling Coalition Avenir Québec force an early end to the debate.

“Secularism is a value that is dear and fundamental for Quebecers,” Simon Jolin-Barrette, the province’s immigration minister, said during the debate in the Quebec legislature. Quebec’s right-leaning government has said the ban should mark an end to roughly a decade of divisive debate about accommodating religious minorities in the province.

As a French-speaking province in predominantly English Canada, Quebec has long sought to protect its distinct language and culture, which has in recent decades included a commitment to the separation of religion and the state.

Civil-liberties and religious groups denounced the law. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the National Council of Canadian Muslims on Monday said they had started legal proceedings to persuade the Court of Quebec to declare the law invalid because it violates Canada’s constitution. The group also asked the court to suspend implementation of the law until the court issues a ruling.

“The Quebec government has legalized religious discrimination,” said Leila Nasr, from the National Council of Canadian Muslims. “This is one of the biggest civil-liberties challenges in recent Canadian history.”

The World Sikh Organization said the law sends a message that Quebec has shut its doors to diversity and inclusion. “Stripping members of minority communities of their rights is a shocking move that will have long-term repercussions for Quebec and Canada,” the organization’s president said.

In addition to the ban on religious symbols for public servants, the new Quebec law requires anyone giving or receiving public services to have their faces visible. Critics argue that portion of the law targets the tiny minority of Quebecers who wear the face-covering niqab or burqa.

The Quebec law follows in the footsteps of some jurisdictions in Europe. France and some German states have imposed rules on religious garb for teachers, while France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark have partial or complete bans on full-face coverings in public spaces.

U.S. states have prohibited religious symbols for teachers but didn’t apply those rules to other public-sector employees. Most states have since repealed those laws. Pennsylvania’s state legislature is currently considering a bill to repeal its so-called religious-garb law for teachers.

A spokesman for Canada’s Liberal government said the law undermines fundamental rights and individual freedoms by forcing some people to choose between their religion and their job. “It’s not up to politicians to tell people what to wear or not to wear. Canada is already a secular state and that is reflected in our institutions,” the spokesman said, adding the federal government would monitor how the law is implemented.

Several Quebec school boards oppose the law, and Montreal’s English-language school board has said it wouldn’t enforce the rules if the law was passed. The board said in March it had never received a complaint from a student or parent about a teacher wearing a religious symbol or headgear such as a head scarf or turban.

Polls indicate a majority of Quebecers are in favor of restricting religious garb for public servants, with support concentrated among French speakers. However, respondents’ support for the law appeared to vary depending on the religious symbol.

A survey by the Angus Reid Institute released in December found a majority of respondents opposed public servants wearing Muslim head scarfs and turbans, but were more accepting for those wearing a crucifix or the Star of David.

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