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New Quebec law forbids government workers from wearing religious symbols

BILL 21 PROTEST
David Himbert | Hans Lucas | AFP
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Secularism bill will be challenged in court.

Legislation that Catholic bishops in Quebec said would “nourish fear and intolerance” has become law.

Bill 21, dubbed the “Secularism Law,” was passed late Sunday. It bars civil servants in positions of authority — including public school teachers, government lawyers and police officers — from wearing religious symbols while at work, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It has been championed by Quebec Premier François Legault.

According to the Catholic Herald, the government said it wants to strengthen separation of the state and religions, religious neutrality of the state, equality of all citizens and freedom of conscience and religion.

The prohibition to wear religious symbols will only apply to new employees, the Herald says. Those who already had a job affected by this law will be able to wear religious symbols as long as they keep their current job.

Opponents argue that the new statute will limit employment opportunities for people who wear religious garb such as the hijab, turban or kippa, or symbols such as a crucifix. Already, a Muslim advocacy group, the National Council of Canadian Muslims, along with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, has filed a legal challenge in Quebec Superior Court.

Quebec’s majority government passed the bill, 75-35, June 16. The New York Times reported that at the last minute, the government added an amendment that would allow inspectors to verify that the law was being obeyed. Opposition Liberals in parliament criticized the move as creating a “secularism police force.” A government spokesman responded that the government was merely ensuring that the bill had powers of verification.

Bill 21 defines “religious symbol” as “any clothing, symbol, jewelry, ornament, accessory or headgear that is worn in connection with a religious conviction or belief.”

The government also included in Bill 21 a “notwithstanding clause,” which empowers Canadian legislatures to override some constitutional rights like freedom of religion or expression. That is expected to make legal challenges difficult.

The Catholic Herald pointed out that most religious groups—including Christians and Muslims—were not invited to participate in hearings on the bill at a National Assembly commission in May.

While Quebec’s Catholic bishops have said they agree with the idea of promoting a secular state, they made it clear this spring that it should not be at the expense of fundamental religious rights.

“We believe that it’s better to fight prejudices and fear for the other in a rational way, by educating people about the diversity of religious, spiritual and cultural experiences and traditions, rather than by prohibitions,” the bishops said.

For people like Amani Ben Ammar from Tunisia, however, the new law has merit. The 34-year-old accountant said it’s important that those representing the state in positions of authority appear neutral.

“How can a judge wearing a Muslim head scarf be deemed neutral in a case involving a homosexual?” she asked, in an interview with the Times. “Diversity is important in society, but the state needs to avoid conflicts between professional duties and religion.

“I left my country because of the pressure of Islamization and do not expect to find that in Quebec,” she said.

The Archdiocese of Montreal had issued a statement in April defending Christians who wish to wear a crucifix.

“As a sign revered by Christians, the crucifix remains a living symbol,” said Archbishop Christian Lépine of Montreal. “It symbolizes openness and respect toward all peoples, including toward other faith communities and religious traditions, which rightfully adhere to their own signs and symbols.”

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