Montreal

OPINION | The CAQ's secularism bill is a positive step forward

Bill 21 includes banning religious symbols worn by public servants in positions of authority and this is good news, says one Quebecer.

'Religion should be a private matter,' says David Rand, spokesperson of a group for a pro-secular Quebec

Quebec Minister of Immigration, Diversity and Inclusiveness Simon Jolin-Barrette is applauded by Quebec Premier François Legault, right after tabling a legislation on laicity of the state at the legislature in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

I, like the majority of Quebecers, am very happy that the Quebec government has decided to adopt secularism as official policy.

Bill 21 includes banning religious symbols worn by public servants in positions of authority.

This is good news.

But you would not think so by reading many mainstream media, especially the English-language media. What you see there is a total failure — or worse, a stubborn refusal — to understand a very simple principle: that civil servants on duty must be neutral.

The bill will help to protect the freedom of conscience of at least some users of public services, and especially pupils in public schools, by making sure that they are not subjected to unnecessary displays of religious publicity.

Bill 21 does not exclude religious believers from government jobs. Rather, it excludes only their religious symbols, and only if they work for the government in positions of authority, and only while on the job.

Quebec already has legislation which forbids such employees from wearing partisan political symbols on the job. Bill 21 extends this to religious symbols, as indeed it should. After all, religions are often very political.

Bill 21 does not discriminate on the basis of religion. It applies to all religions.

Many immigrants came to Canada from Muslim-majority countries because they wanted to live in a country with more freedom and to escape the growing, toxic influence of militant Islamic fundamentalists.

Many Canadians see the veil as I do: as a symbol of the servitude of women that's promoted by those fundamentalists for their political purposes. For instance, women in countries such as Iran risk arrest, corporal punishment or prison when they defy the strict obligation to wear a hijab, or headscarf.

Marlihan Lopez, left, and Safa Chebbi, are part of a coalition to mobilize Quebecers against disciminatory legislation. Bill 21 would prohibit certain state employees, such as police officers, judges and teachers, from wearing religious symbols while on the job. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

What we ask, here in Quebec, is that Muslim women who wear hijabs or niqabs, Jewish men who wear kippas, Sikhs who wear turbans, or Christians who wear a cross remove their religious symbols for the duration of their work shift if they work in the public service in a position of authority. By instating religious neutrality in the workplace in this way, we create a space of freedom in which no one's ideology is on display.

Bill 21 does not deny employment to anyone. Rather, it requires that certain state employees avoid religious symbols while working. In fact, it does not even do that completely, because there is an exemption — a so-called grandfather clause — for those who are already employed in positions of authority when the law goes into effect. This is unfortunate, because it means that there will be serious inequalities among employees — some being exempted from the requirement of Bill 21 and some not.

That grandfather clause is also bad because it means that people who are served by exempted employees, or children who are taught by exempted teachers, will be captive audiences for religious displays — and that violates their freedom of conscience.

We have all heard the argument that, say, a teacher wearing a hijab or crucifix or other symbol is not necessarily trying to convert anyone.

But the intentions of the wearer are irrelevant. The symbol is a form of passive publicity, regardless of what the person wearing it thinks. Why do you think companies purchase advertising to display their products on billboards or buses or television? Because it works, because it helps promote their products.

Religion should be a private matter. If an individual refuses to recognize that public service employees have a duty to be seen to be neutral on the issue of religious faith while on the job, then I question whether that individual is fully qualified for the position.

Some opponents of Bill 21 make outrageous accusations against secularists and against Quebecers in general — given that polls published as recently as last fall show the majority are in favour of such legislation.

Bill 21 doesn't go far enough

In my view, the bill does not go far enough. It should apply to all public servants, not just some, and it should contain no exemptions.

It is a very good thing that the CAQ has announced that it will remove the crucifix from the main chamber of the National Assembly as soon as Bill 21 is adopted. However, that is not enough — symbols worn by sitting MNAs should also be banned. Unfortunately, Bill 21 does not do that, so we will end up with a situation where the walls of the legislature will be neutral, but not the people on the benches.

The crucifix hanging above the speaker's throne at the legislature in Quebec City would be moved if the current proposed Bill 21 is adopted. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

In order for the Quebec state to be religiously neutral, it is not enough to remove symbols from the buildings, and it is not enough to remove them from some employees. Both must be done.

The proposed legislation is imperfect, but Bill 21 sets the stage for future improvements.

Read more perspectives on Bill 21:


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CBC Montreal is seeking out points of view on and Bill 21 and other issues related to secularism in Quebec. If you have an idea or wish to share your personal story, send us an email: sabrina.marandola@cbc.ca.

About the Author

David Rand

Spokesperson for Rassemblement pour la laïcité

David Rand is a spokesperson for Rassemblement pour la laïcité and president of the organization Libres penseurs athées (Atheist Freethinkers)

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