The passage of Quebec’s Bill 21 is bad news for the state of freedom of expression, religious freedom and secularism itself in Canada. Humanists should stand united against the clear infringement on our fundamental freedoms by the Government of Quebec.
The bill, now law, is entitled (in English) “An Act respecting the laicity of the State.” Despite pronouncements in English Canada media, it does not enshrine state secularism – in fact, the bill doesn’t once use the word – rather it affirms “the laicity of the State”. It describes the four principles of state laicity as:
- The separation of the State and religions;
- The religious neutrality of the State;
- The equality of all citizens; and
- Freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.
By comparison, the BC Humanist Association defines a secular society as one that affirms: "the right of every individual to practice any religion or none, free from coercion by the government, private institutions or their community; and that the state has a duty of religious neutrality, meaning it must neither endorse nor prohibit any belief or non-belief."
While these two definitions as expressed above are compatible on their face, the Government of Quebec’s vision of State laicity laid out in Bill 21 clearly goes farther than those four principles. The new law prohibits government employees from wearing religious symbols in the exercise of their functions. This view of laicity likely comes from the French laïcité: A concept that advocates for the full removal of religion from the public square. Secularism, by contrast, seeks equality between religious and nonreligious views.
Put another way, secularism seeks an equal playing field while laicity relies on the suppression of religion by the state.
With Bill 21 becoming law, the Quebec government has invoked the notwithstanding clause to shield it from Charter scrutiny. Freedom of expression and freedom of religion become meaningless when the state tramples them.
As we’ve previously expressed:
Blanket bans on the wearing of religious headgear or symbols in public, or as a requirement to receive public services, are an infringement of an individual’s freedoms of religion and expression that is not consistent with our view of secularism.
Additionally, the Government passed a number of last minute amendments to the bill. These changes effectively mean the state will be policing its employees' clothing and individual bureaucrats, acting like police officers, will be in charge of arbitrarily deciding whether someone's clothing is cultural or religious - and therefore whether they keep their jobs or not. These moves are incredibly worrying for Humanists, given our concern for civil liberties and the rights of individuals to live and work free from interference by the state.
In particular, these quasi-authoritarian measures will fall disproportionately on women, immigrants, members of minority faiths and people of colour. These communities have already seen a rising number of hate crimes in recent years. Given this increasing persecution, secularist and journalist Gurpreet Singh told me he worries the law will "help the Alt Right movement that is already getting stronger in Canada." He described the bill as "nothing but pseudo-secularism."
While we applaud efforts by governments to recognize their duty of religious neutrality and the separation of church and state, such actions cannot be justifiably taken on the back of religious minorities and still be consistent with secularism.
Banner credit: Matias Garabedian, Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0