State Neutrality Does Not Always Result in Substantive Equality.

AuthorMcKay-Panos, Linda
PositionColumns: Human Rights Law

Recently, Quebec Premier Francois Legault's government introduced Bill 21 (An Act Respecting the Laicity [Secularism] of the State). Among other things, the Act prohibits public workers in positions of authority (e.g., teachers, police officers, prison guards, Crown prosecutors, government lawyers and judges) from wearing religious symbols (not defined in the Act, but presumably would include turbans, kippahs, crucifixes, hijabs, clerical collars, etc.).

The Act also prohibits receiving government services with one's face covered. This latter provision was previously introduced in Bill 62 (s 10, which required people to remove face coverings when receiving government services), and was the subject of an injunction issued by Justice Marc-Andre Blanchard. Justice Blanchard held that section 10 appeared to be a violation of both the Canadian and Quebec Charters, "which protect freedom of conscience and religion" (see: "CCLA & NCCM Successfully obtain Renewed Stay Against Quebec's Bill 62" (June 29, 2018)). The Quebec government, in passing Bill 21, seems to be responding to this earlier decision by invoking the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms' notwithstanding clause (See: Effects of the Notwithstanding Clause on Human Rights Law).

Finally, Bill 21 seeks to amend Quebec's Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms to include the fact that the Quebec nation considers: "state laicity [secularism] to be of fundamental importance." Again, this appears to be an attempt to prevent any court challenges to Bill 21.

The Preamble to Bill 21 explains that the Quebec nation "has its own characteristics, one of which is its civil law tradition, distinct social values and a specific history that [has] led it to develop a particular attachment to state laicity." The Preamble also says that secularly should be "affirmed in a manner that ensures a balance between the collective rights of the Quebec nation and human rights and freedoms." It notes that Quebec "attaches importance to the equality of women and men"--which is "an apparent reference to the concern expressed by some people that the hijab, the headscarf worn by some Muslim women, and the niqab, a Muslim veil, are symbols of female inferiority" (See: CBC News Benjamin Shingler, (28 March 2019) "What's in Quebec's secularism bill: Religious symbols, uncovered faces and a charter workaround").

Laicity, according to section 2 of the Bill, is based on four principles: the separation of state and...

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