By Hannah Dick. (Hannah Dick is an assistant professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.)
The Québec government is proposing a secularism law to prohibit any new public servants in a position of authority — including teachers, lawyers and police officers — from wearing religious symbols while at work.
The bill incorporates the language of the law from last year’s Bill 62, which prohibits people from wearing face coverings when they receive government services — including health care and day care services and using public transit.
Bill 21, An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State, follows laws previously put forth by Québec’s governments — the Liberal Party in 2010 and 2017 and the Parti Québécois in 2013. But parts of these law were suspended after court challenges.
This time, the provincial government invoked the “notwithstanding clause” to ensure it holds up against constitutional scrutiny. The clause allows provincial or federal authorities to override sections of Canada’s Charter of Rights.
The bill also proposes to permanently amend the Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms to accommodate state laïcité, the French principle of strict separation between church and state.
Christian culture as the norm
In my research at Carleton University, I have been tracking what I call “Christian liberalism.” I look at the role of religion within the liberal democratic state — and how Christian frameworks, norms and values are embedded into the history of law and public policy in the United States and Canada.
At first glance, the strict secularism (or laïcité) of Bill 21 appears intolerant of religion in all its public forms. But the neutral and secular language of the bill presumes an invisible Christian default when outlining the rules around public expressions of religiosity.
For example, the Charter of Values put forth by the Parti Québécois in 2013 proposed banning “conspicuous” religious symbols from the public service sector. But it drew a line between “subtle” religious expressions (like a crucifix necklace) and “overt” ones (like the Islamic headscarf).
The language of conspicuousness reveals that what is determined to be permissible religious expression is a “familiar” and historically embedded Christian understanding.
The use of the notwithstanding clause and the proposal to amend the province’s Human Rights Charter pose real constitutional threats. Given the rise in hate crimes targeting racialized and religious minority groups in Canada, the 2017 terrorist attack on a Québec City mosque and the recent attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, the suspension of religious freedom rights should raise alarms.
Bill 21, like the previous secularism bills, disproportionately targets religious minorities.
According to the non-profit human rights group the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the bill amplifies anti-Muslim sentiment. Many news op-eds express the same view: that the bill could intensify polarizing attitudes in Québec.
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Source: Religion News Service