Quebec Government's Secularism Bill Prompts Outcry



A bill tabled in Quebec, titled “An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State,” is provoking strong pushback from religious groups, government officials, and pro-civil liberty organizations. The province’s government, led by the CAQ (Coalition Avenir Québec), proposed Bill 21 on March 28.

The bill seeks to amend the Charter of human rights and freedoms (chapter C-12). The bill’s preamble states that “the purpose of this bill is to affirm the laicity of the State and to set out the requirements that follow from it.” According to the CAQ government, laicity consists of the separation of the State and religions, the religious neutrality of the State, the equality of all citizens, and freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.

Two potential consequences of the bill have received the most criticism. First, the bill would prohibit government personnel from wearing religious symbols when performing their duties. Secondly, sections of the bill prohibit citizens from wearing religious garb that covers the face when government personnel render services to them that require the verification of their identity. The bill claims that these bans are necessary to comply with “the duty of religious neutrality under Chapter II of the Act [Bill 21].”

After this bill’s proposals were announced, various social groups from Canadian society expressed their concerns. The mayor of Montreal called it “very concerning.” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau commented, “It is unthinkable to me that in a free society, we would legitimize discrimination against citizens based on their religion.” Julien Feldman, chairman of the English Montreal School Board’s human resources committee, also said in a statement, “This proposed legislation would be contrary to the values the EMSB (English Montreal School Board) teaches its children, in particular, values of diversity, acceptance, tolerance and respect for individual rights and religious freedoms.”

Critiques of Bill 21 have been legal as well as rhetorical. To protect against court challenges, the bill invokes the notwithstanding clause, which permits legislatures to temporarily override parts of the Canadian Charter of human rights and freedoms. As a result, legal personnel such as Catherine McKenzie, a Montreal lawyer, are searching for “creative” ways to challenge the bill. France-Isabelle Langlois, Amnesty International’s director for French-speaking Canada, stated that her organization is looking “to see if there's any possibilities (sic) here in Quebec, Canada and internationally.”

In response to this public backlash, on March 29, Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette warned of consequences if the entities affected by this law did not comply with it. “One thing’s for sure,” he said, “Once the bill is adopted by the National Assembly, it will become our law, and the school board will have to apply the law. That’s the way it works in our society.”