Quebec government's proposed secularism law would ban public workers from wearing religious symbols

The Coalition Avenir Québec government is proposing a new law that would prohibit public workers in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols such as a hijab, kippa or turban. 

Bill invokes notwithstanding clause to block any potential charter challenges

Quebec Premier François Legault is seen walking by the crucifix in National Assembly that would likely be moved if the government's new secularism bill is passed. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

The Coalition Avenir Québec government is proposing a new law that would prohibit public workers in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols such as a hijab, kippa or turban. 

The stated aim of the bill, titled, "An Act respecting the laicity of the State," is to affirm religious neutrality in a manner that "ensures a balance between the collective rights of the Quebec nation and human rights and freedoms."

The ban would apply to, among others, Quebec Crown prosecutors, judges and any public employee who carries a firearm, as well as teachers and principals.

There is a grandfather clause in the bill to exempt some public workers, including teachers, from the ban as long as they hold the same job.

There are also new rules that would require citizens to uncover their faces to receive a public service for identification or security purposes, including boarding a city bus with a discounted student transit pass.

The previous Liberal government adopted a similar rule for receiving services, but it was suspended after civil liberties groups argued it violated the Canadian and Quebec charters, which "provide for freedom of conscience and religion."

Working around charter challenges

The new bill invokes the notwithstanding clause to work around any potential charter challenges.

The clause, officially called Section 33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, allows provincial or federal authorities to override certain sections of the charter for a period of five years.

The CAQ government also introduced a motion promising to move the crucifix that hangs in the National Assembly's main chamber to a different part of the building. The motion passed unanimously.

The crucifix was installed above the Speaker's chair in 1936. A government-commissioned report into secularism and identity issues recommended in 2008 that it be removed, but no government has done so.

A crucifix above the Speaker's chair in the Quebec National Assembly has been described by some politicians more as a symbol of Quebec's heritage, not an item representing Christian faith. The cross was installed in 1936 by the order of then Premier Maurice Duplessis. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Premier François Legault said he agreed to exempt current teachers and move the crucifix in an attempt to secure greater support for the proposal and, he hopes, to put an end to the debate once and for all. The religious symbols ban was a key CAQ promise in last fall's election. They won a majority with 38 per cent of the popular vote.

"What I want to try to do in the next few weeks is to unite as many Quebecers as possible. That's why we accepted to make compromises. But I'm very proud of the bill we tabled today. It represents values, our values, and it's important," Legault said.

The opposition Liberals argued the bill goes too far and would hurt, in particular, Muslim women who wear the hijab. The Parti Québécois, however, said the ban on religious symbols should have been extended to public daycare workers.

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said she was "disappointed" by the bill and argued such a law would hamper integration of minorities. She said the city's public services, including its police force, should reflect the population.

Three previous provincial governments have tried and failed to settle the secularism debate, but Legault is hoping the bill is passed by summer.

André Lamoureux, a spokesperson for the Rassemblement pour la laïcité, a pro-secular group, said he sees the law as a way to ensure a harmonious society, rather than a rejection of diversity.

"We think the secular way of functioning ensures that we are equal citizens," he said.

Before the bill was tabled, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday that he was concerned about the CAQ's plan.

"It's unthinkable to me that in a free society we would legitimize discrimination against citizens based on their religion."

Religious groups warn of 'diminishing' rights

Religious groups were quick to condemn the law as unfairly targeting minorities. 

"We are very concerned with the new Quebec government's statements regarding a ban on religious symbols displayed by government officials and displayed in public institutions," said Harvey Levine, Quebec's regional director of B'nai Brith. 

"We call on the CAQ to avoid the slippery slope of diminishing fundamental rights and work instead to secure religious liberties for all Quebecers."

The National Council of Canadian Muslims and the World Sikh Organization of Canada also issued statements raising concerns about the proposed law.

The Quebec Women's Federation, for its part, issued a sharply worded statement, accusing the government of basing the bill on identity politics, rather than secular principles. 

"We reject that the Quebec state should dictate to women what they can wear or not," the statement said.

The English Montreal School Board adopted a motion Wednesday — before the bill had even been tabled — saying it would refuse to implement such a ban.

Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, who has been spearheading the proposal, called for "calm" discussions about the bill.

"I invite people to make their comments in a respectable way," he said.


Benjamin Shingler is a senior writer based in Montreal. He specializes in health and social issues, and previously worked at The Canadian Press and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal.

With files from Sudha Krishnan