Statement on Quebec Bill 21 to Remove Religious Symbols from Quebec Public Sector Workers

Toronto, ON April 5, 2019 – The Catholic Civil Rights League (CCRL) notes with regret last week’s introduction of proposed legislation to force all religious symbols to be removed by specific public sector workers in the province of Quebec.

The League is not terribly surprised by the demands of the Legault Coalition Avenir government, but remains disappointed with the proposal, which is likely to pass given its legislative majority.

It was not long ago, in 2015, when the Supreme Court of Canada struck out a short affirmative prayer at the commencement of council meetings in the town of Saguenay, over the objections of an atheist activist.

We commented how this ruling would serve as a wedge to demand further demands to have the public square adopt more stringent demands against all religious viewpoints, to advance the “naked” public square, the 1984 phrase coined by the late Canadian commentator, Father Richard John Neuhaus.

Here is what we said a short 4 years ago:

Mr. Justice Gascon cited the previous ruling of the Quebec Court of Appeal, which had decided in favour of a notion of “benevolent neutrality” in the Saguenay case:

The duty of neutrality must be complied with in a manner that is consistent with society’s heritage and traditions, and with the state’s duty to preserve its history (para. 69). Protection of the diversity of beliefs must be reconciled with the cultural reality of society, which includes its religious heritage (para. 72).

The Quebec court further held that the interference with Mr. Simoneau’s freedom, if any, was trivial or insubstantial in the case of both the prayer and the symbols (paras. 115 and 127).

However, in Saguenay at the Supreme Court, Mr. Justice Gascon stated:

By expressing no preference, the state ensures that it preserves a neutral public space that is free of discrimination and in which true freedom to believe or not to believe is enjoyed by everyone equally, given that everyone is valued equally. I note that a neutral public space does not mean the homogenization of private players in that space. Neutrality is required of institutions and the state, not individuals. On the contrary, a neutral public space free from coercion, pressure and judgment on the part of public authorities in matters of spirituality is intended to protect every person’s freedom and dignity (para 74).

Quebec Bill 21, introduced last week, and for which the notwithstanding clause of the Charter is expected to be relied upon owing to its clear infringement of religious freedoms, goes against what the Supreme Court declared in 2015, and uses the notion of “laicité”, a concept more intrusive than “neutrality”. The intention is to remove entirely religious symbols or clothing from certain government actors. Its impact, while recognizing a “grandfather” clause for current workers, is intended to remove such observances from those “in authority”, such that religiously observant workers in the future may not remain in the public service, if they choose not to abandon a hijab, or a cross on a necklace, a habit, or a yarmulke.

Have reference to a 2007 observation of philosopher John Gray:

In a pluralistic society no single religion can be established to the exclusion of others. Yet it surely makes sense to integrate religions into public life rather than forever trying to exclude them. Given different histories and circumstances, how this is done is bound to vary widely. There is no simple, universal solution. What is clear is that secular fundamentalism, which seeks to cordon off religion from public life, is a dead end. Religion is a primary human need, and denying this fact is futile and counter-productive. After so many vain attempts, it is time we accepted that the issue is not how to exorcise religion from society. It is how rival faiths can learn to live together in peace.

We decry the Quebec government’s ongoing effort to “cordon off” religion from public life. Religion, from the word “religio” (to bind) serves as a form of unification of divergent viewpoints on shared beliefs.

When tragic events have occurred in Quebec, prayer services occur, in public, from a wide variety of faith groups. We should recognize that what people do in a time of crisis speaks to their inner beliefs, and truth claims. The attempt by the state to deny such realities, or eradicate visible expressions of such adherences, is futile.

Think of the prayer services following the tragedies at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City in 2017, or the prayer service following the Humboldt tragedy in 2018.

By extension, we have reason to fear that future applications of Bill 21 demands will only be extended to remove expressions of prayer from public spaces, for which pressures already exist in the university sector: https://www.lapresse.ca/actualites/regional/201904/02/01-5220491-la-participation-du-recteur-de-luqtr-a-une-messe-derange.php

By recourse to the notwithstanding clause, the Quebec government recognizes that the pursuit of “laicité” is a tool to oppress personal freedoms.

To make our point, the next resolution of the National Assembly, passed unanimously, was to remove the crucifix from the provincial legislature, a position that was opposed by a significant majority of legislators just last year.

Expect further demands. Laicité is aggressive, and comes with a price. That greater price in the short term will likely be the educative effect that such legislation will have, to stifle public signs or expressions of religious observances, which will be to Quebec’s detriment.


About the CCRL

Catholic Civil Rights League (CCRL) (www.ccrl.ca) assists in creating conditions within which Catholic teachings can be better understood, cooperates with other organizations in defending civil rights in Canada, and opposes defamation and discrimination against Catholics on the basis of their beliefs. The CCRL was founded in 1985 as an independent lay organization with a large nationwide membership base. The CCRL is a Canadian non-profit organization entirely supported by the generosity of its members.

To donate to the CCRL, please click here.

For further information:

Christian Domenic Elia, PhD
CCRL Executive Director
416-466-8244
@CCRLtweets