The Current

Why Bill 21 has some feeling freedom of expression is an 'illusion' in Quebec

If Quebec's Bill 21 gets the green light, some civil servants would be banned from wearing religious symbols on the job. But not everyone is on board with the idea. We hear from groups on both sides of the debate who are weighing in at ongoing legislative hearings.

Supporters say proposed ban on religious symbols protects 'freedom of conscience'

People hold up signs during a demonstration in Montreal on April 7 in opposition to the Quebec government's Bill 21. The legislation proposes to ban some public servants from wearing religious symbols in the workplace. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

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Quebec's proposed ban on religious symbols in the workplace is an "existential type of attack" that has people feeling like their freedom to express themselves was simply "an illusion," claims a member of a multifaith group opposed to the bill.

"What you're being told is you have to give up who you are, give up your identity. I don't consider that a free choice," said Gregory Bordan, an orthodox Jewish lawyer in Montreal who is part of the Coalition Inclusion Quebec.

"Freedom of religion means … you're not forced to put aside your religion in order to participate in society," he told The Current's guest host Matt Galloway.

If passed, Bill 21 proposes to stop some civil servants from wearing religious symbols, such as the kippa, turban or hijab on the job. The rules would apply to teachers, police officers and judges, among others.

The Coalition Inclusion Quebec is one of four religious or inter-faith groups voicing their opinions on the bill at ongoing legislative hearings. A total of 36 groups have been invited to testify.

Protecting 'freedom of conscience'

Bordan said the group supports the separation of state and religion, but argued Bill 21 would "institutionalize discrimination."

That's not how Diane Guilbault, president of Pour les droits des femmes du Quebec, sees the legislation.

"The bill, at the heart, is to protect the freedom of conscience of the citizens," she told Galloway.

When I go to a government service ... I don't want to talk about religion.- Diane Guilbault, president of Pour les droits des femmes du Quebec

When someone wears a sign of their religion, Guilbault explains, they are "displaying a discourse."

"When I go to a government service, a public service, I don't want to talk about religion, so I don't want to know what religion the person is," she said, adding that symbols carry a great deal of meaning.

But Bordan contends the argument that someone imposes their ideas about religion on another by wearing religious symbols, like a kippa, is a "fundamental mistake."

"I don't believe for one moment that Madame Guilbault is going to feel that she has to convert to Judaism because I'm wearing a kippa," he said.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Danielle Carr, Samira Mohyeddin and Julianne Hazlewood.