Quebec Bans Public Employees from Wearing Religious Symbols in the Workplace

A kindergarten teacher in Montreal. The new law bans public employees in the province of Quebec from wearing religious symbols in the workplace.
Credit: Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press

The Quebec government passed a bill late Sunday barring schoolteachers, police officers, judges and other public employees from wearing religious symbols in the workplace, prompting an outcry that civil liberties in the province were under attack.

François Legault, the right-leaning Quebec premier, had called the bill a necessary measure to ensure the separation between religion and state in an abidingly secular province. It applies to Muslim head scarves, Jewish skullcaps, Sikh turbans and Catholic crosses, among other symbols.

Mr. Legault had also argued that the bill, which passed by 73 to 35, was supported by a majority of Quebecers.

Members of the opposition called Sunday a dark day for the province. Critics say that the legislation will effectively exclude religious Muslims, Sikhs and Jews from positions of authority in education and law enforcement, and that it runs roughshod over the freedom of religion and expression at the heart of Canada’s model of multiculturalism.

They also argue that it threatens to foment Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and fear of other minorities. Public officials, including several mayors and school boards in Montreal, have vowed to ignore the law, setting up a potential clash with the law enforcement authorities charged with enforcing it.

At the last minute, the government added an amendment that would allow inspectors to verify that the law was being obeyed, prompting the opposition Liberals to rail against the creation of a “secularism police force.” A government spokesman called such a characterization “ridiculous,” saying the government was merely ensuring that the bill had powers of verification. Public employees who flout the law could also face disciplinary measures.

As part of an overhaul of immigration policies, the government also passed a bill over the weekend that would scrap about 16,000 immigration applications. The legislation would affect about 50,000 people and force some immigrants who have been waiting in limbo for years to apply again.

The Quebec government has been seeking to tighten immigration, and has also raised the idea of testing immigrants to ensure they espouse Quebec’s values as a prerequisite for gaining permanent residency in the province.

In April, thousands of people took to the streets in Montreal to protest the religious symbols bill. One clutched a sign that read, “It’s what’s in my head, not on my head, that matters.”

“This government is introducing a law that tramples on the rights of thousands of people,” said Catherine McKenzie, the lead lawyer for a group seeking to overturn the legislation. “This bill is based on the same forces of populism we are seeing in the United States and Europe: the fear of the other.”

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SOURCE: The New York Times, Dan Bilefsky