MONTREAL, QC August 21, 2013 (CCRL) – The Quebec government’s plan to introduce a “Charter of Quebec Values” was announced last year, but some details of its implications for religious freedom were leaked to the press this week. Reportedly, the proposed 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.  Canada’s understanding of secularism, among other elements, is that the state does not favour any one religion, but rather welcomes all. There will always be individual cases where accommodation is tested (such as the Hutterite Brethren case in Alberta or Multani case in Quebec), but the expectation is that religious differences are accommodated to the point of undue hardship.

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 says in the article linked below, 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 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.

Like Putin’s Russia: Parti Quebecois unthinkable plan to ban religious symbols in public sector, National Post, August 21, 2013