MONTREAL, QC September 11, 2013 (CCRL) – The Catholic Civil Rights League sees some key aspects of Quebec’s  proposed “Charter of Quebec Values” as a serious infringement on religious freedom and encourages its Quebec membership to oppose it.

A plan for such a charter was announced last year, but some details of its implications for religious freedom were leaked to the press in August and confirmed Sept. 10, when the government unveiled the proposal. The legislation would ban most religious symbols from public institutions, and public employees would not be permitted to wear religious items such as hijabs, kippas, turbans and “ostentatious crucifixes.” The ban would extend to all the province’s public services, such as daycares, schools, hospitals and government offices.

Despite the ban, the crucifix in Quebec’s National Assembly and the cross at the top of Mount Royal would remain, since according to the government they are symbols of Quebec’s “heritage.”

“In a society that guarantees religious freedom, it is difficult to see how such a sweeping ban could withstand a constitutional challenge,” said League Executive Director Joanne McGarry.  “Canada’s understanding of secularism, among other elements, is that the state does not favour any one religion, but rather welcomes all. Few, if any, would regard a ban on religious symbols as welcoming.”

 There will always be individual cases where religious freedom is tested, but the expectation is that religious differences are accommodated to the point of undue hardship. There have been a number of court and tribunal cases testing religious freedom, but almost all of them involved a second right or factor that had to be balanced with it, such as safety, proof of identity or unacceptable levels of inconvenience to others. In the Multani case, for example, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a Sikh ceremonial dagger could be worn to school since no danger to others had been established. The Court upheld the right of the Alberta government to insist on photo identification on the drivers’ licenses of Hutterites, despite the fact that their religion does not allow them to be photographed. While not everyone agreed with these decisions, it is obvious they involved more than the simple right to religious freedom.

Such conflicts are not uncommon in Quebec, where a fiery debate erupted earlier this year over a ban on wearing turbans on Quebec soccer fields. The turban ban was lifted by the Quebec Soccer Federation due to external pressure — but not before it made headlines around the world.  

As Charles Taylor, co-author of the Taylor-Bouchard Report on Reasonable Accommodation said when the Quebec proposals were leaked to the press, the fact that public institutions are expected to be neutral on religious matters does not mean the people working in them are. A sweeping ban on the wearing of religious or cultural symbols would limit employees’ religious freedom, and it would probably also increase the sense of exclusion of minorities and of religious believers.  

The ban would also prove discriminatory, in that the groups affected are minorities. Few Christians are required to wear outward symbols of faith, but many Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims are. Some debate whether some of these these requirements are “official” or a matter of personal interpretation, but in a society valuing religious freedom that  is not a question with which the stage should be involved.

The proposed ban on religious symbols is clearly an issue of religious freedom, and also raises a second question: just how far the state can go in imposing religious conformity on its citizens. This question will undoubtedly be discussed in detail in the appeal of Loyola High School’s request to teach Quebec’s Ethics and Religious Culture course from a Catholic standpoint. The League is now participating in plans for an intervention in this appeal.

Ideologues behind Quebec’s charter, Catholic Register, September 5
Charter of Quebec Values: Crosses, kippahs popping up on campuses, Montreal Gazette, Sept. 11

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