Quebec religious symbols law gets fair, if bewildered, treatment by news media pros

It’s called the Quebec religious symbols law and it’s an odd one.

Passed in June, public employees, such as police officers, government workers and school teachers, are forbidden from wearing any religious regalia. It’s been on appeal ever since and just got approved for a hearing in front of Canada’s highest court.

After plowing through several Canadian newspapers, I found the most succinct explanation in The Atlantic::

Bill 21, or its official name, “An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State,” was passed last month, after Quebec’s center-right government held a marathon parliamentary session—and curbed debate in the face of staunch opposition. Yet polls nevertheless show the legislation is popular—63 percent of Quebecers support a ban on judges, police officers, and prison guards wearing religious symbols; 59 percent back such a restriction on teachers, too. The legislation, which applies only to new hires or those who change jobs within an organization, means workers in positions of authority in public schools, courtrooms, law enforcement agencies and other places can no longer wear such symbols.

Being that this includes public school teachers (and aides too, I’m guessing), that’s a lot of now-forbidden jobs.

That this debate is happening in Quebec is no surprise, given its history and how it views itself compared with the rest of Canada. Some Quebecers fear that the broader Canadian policy of multiculturalism will erase their “distinct identity” as a French-speaking province. These concerns have translated into efforts such as Bill 21.

Actually, the Quebecers are copying what’s going on in France, where it’s been illegal to wear full face-coverings in public in France since 2010. (There is not a national ban on hijabs, which simply cover the woman’s head and hair.) Since 2004, it has also been illegal to wear conspicuous religious symbols, including headscarves but also yarmulkehs and crucifixes, in French state schools.

The province’s version of laicity is not quite the laïcité most commonly associated with France, which has a complete separation of religion from the public space, but it’s not too far off either…

However, the Canadian law is stricter than what was passed in France.

Still, civil-liberties groups say the law is an example of rising xenophobia in Quebec. They argue that people who wear symbols of their religion in public already feel ostracized in Quebec; the new law makes it legal to deny them government jobs. The state’s job is to protect minority rights, not curb them—and Bill 21 is doing precisely that, they contend.

These same groups approached Quebec’s Superior Court to suspend the law, but they were turned down. Religion News Service then explained:

Quebec’s education minister recently made headlines after he posed for a picture with Nobel Peace Prize-winning Malala Yousafzai, then later tweeted that the Muslim education advocate would only be welcome to teach in Quebec schools if she removed her hijab.

An international campaign called “Hands Off My Hijab” created after that tweet has collected about 33,000 signatures this month from critics of the bill in the hopes of urging the Superior Court to reject it…

Last week, the Superior Court denied a request for a temporary suspension of certain provisions of the law in the meantime, ruling that the groups had failed to prove that the ban was already causing immediate and irreparable harm to religious minorities like plaintiff Ichrak Nourel Hak.

“This law has stripped me of my dream and sends me a clear message that I am not a valued part of Quebec society,” Hak, who wears the hijab and is studying education at Université de Montréal, said. “All my years of studying, all my efforts to be among the best teachers in Quebec went up in smoke in a snap … this law has just cut off my wings.”

All sorts of media have taken a swing at this battle. BBC interviewed two Muslim women; one for and one against the ban; a female secularist and two Sikhs who oppose the ban. The last Sikh quoted had a good point:

Taran Singh, Quebec Sikh community representative and member of the Coalition Inclusion Quebec, has a question.

"What is the underlying evidence beneath this need?"

He sees Bill 21 as a "divisive solution" in need of a problem and says advocates have presented no direct evidence that public servants wearing religious symbols undermine the separation of Church and state.

"Here there is a presumption that is being made - that wearing a symbol is somehow proselytising," he says.

Which bring up this question: If Singh is on target, what exactly are the Quebecers afraid of? A Muslim uprising on the Plains of Abraham?

CBC has a good –- albeit lengthy -- explanation of why the legal terrain for this law is so tricky. It’s a bit long to include in this piece, but it does explain why it may be hard to defeat.

What I’d like to know – and haven’t seen written about yet although my search hasn’t been exhaustive – is why the Quebecers see the wearing of religious garb in public as proselytizing? The bill applies to public servants with “coercive authority,” the bill says. Down here in the States, are people converting to Islam in droves after seeing a hijab-clad woman in the House of Representatives? I don’t think so.

Just read this 2017 Huffington Post piece by a recent female Muslim immigrant to Canada on how much her hijab is valued there. Let’s hope she didn’t move to Quebec.

There’s one side I don’t hear at all quoted in all these stories. Quebec is overwhelmingly Catholic. What position is the Church taking on this legislation?

Is the problem something as simple as a dress code or is it anti-religious discrimination? This past week, the bill was approved for a hearing before Canada’s highest court. Even though there are zero chances of such legislation happening down here, I hope more American media take an interest it. There’s some real issues here.

Muslims are 3.2 percent of the Canadian population and these days, Canada is a lot more open to immigrants than we are. So does this legislation mean one whole Canadian province is essentially off limits to Muslims and Sikhs and Jews who wish to teach or do police work?

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