Freedom of Religion Notwithstanding

The Canadian province of Quebec is poised for a breakthrough in militant secularism and xenophobia with Bill 21, which would ban certain public-sector employees from wearing yarmulkes, hijabs, and other religious symbols during work hours.

The bill — handiwork of the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) — is expected to gain passage, despite criticism from religious communities and civil rights organizations, though few in Quebec’s ruling party.

It forbids any government employee with “coercive powers” from wearing religious symbols. As it says, “the public servants who cannot wear religious symbols on the job include police officers, prison guards, judges, Crown prosecutors, court security guards, teachers and principals in public elementary and high schools, park wardens and any public employees who carry a firearm.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has come out against Bill 21: “It is unthinkable to me that in a free society we would legitimize discrimination against citizens based on their religion.” This is no small matter in an election year; and Quebec is considered important to Trudeau’s prospects for a second term in office.

But in Quebec, attacks on freedom of religion are highly thinkable — and sayable. The Guardian newspaper called Bill 21 the culmination of “a decade of institutionalized animus directed towards Quebec’s religious minorities.”

The CAQ rose to power last year by giving voice to such thoughts. Quebec Premier Francois Legault (CAQ) told reporters the bill “represents our values and it’s important.”

When Legault speaks of “our” values, he refers to Quebecers in particular, not Canadians in general. Insofar as his constituency is concerned, he is accurate. Some 76 per cent of Quebec residents feel that newcomers “too often impose their values and religion on us,” according to a survey conducted in May 2018.

However, the values of Canada, at least as articulated in the nation’s constitution, are otherwise. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides for freedom of religion. So does Quebec’s own charter.

That’s why similar legislation was struck down three times before this as being unconstitutional.

The reason CAQ will likely succeed in fending off legal challenges this time is the use of the “notwithstanding clause,” which enables the federal government or a Canadian province to override the Charter for up to five years (and renew the override indefinitely thereafter).

Some legal experts have questioned the constitutionality of the clause itself, the absurdity of a law that allows explicitly unconstitutional laws to be passed. Yet, past invocations of the clause — mostly in Quebec — have withstood all challenges. (The notwithstanding clause was the result of a political compromise during debates over a new constitution in the 1980s.)

That is why no one in the CAQ cares that Bill 21 is blatantly unconstitutional.

Although Muslims are the main target of the legislation, Jews also stand to suffer from the same act of discrimination.

Rabbi Reuven Poupko, Quebec co-chair at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), says CIJA is “deeply opposed to the restriction and erosion of the freedom of religion of individuals in the name of secularism,” adding, “Our community believes that the secularism of the state is an institutional duty and not a personal one.”

Montreal-based community activist Mayer Feig said the bill would have little effect on the daily life of Jews or Muslims, as few yarmulke- or hijab-wearers occupy jobs targeted by the law. A clause in the bill allows an exemption for current employees; new hirees are the ones who will be affected.

That doesn’t mean it is of little consequence, however. Feig said that since some Orthodox Jews hope to pursue careers in academia, pursuing that line of work could have practical consequences for frum people.

Beyond those affected directly, the passage of such legislation contributes to a climate that is hostile to Muslims, Jews and members of other faiths — anyone who does not fit into the cultural schemata of the Quebec chauvinists.

Feig said that much of the support for Bill 21 came from frustrated Quebec separatists who have channeled their lack of success in attaining independence into campaigns against religion, immigration, and minority groups.

“This whole thing was always about an emotional anti-religious debate fueled by people spewing against Muslims and Jews as a way of electioneering,” he said. “I hope that if they enact this unnecessary bill the issue will die down and we can all move on.”

That is one approach. However, even if things do quiet down, there is considerable cause for alarm about the precedent being created and the aftereffects of this bill being passed.