2019-04-03, updated 2019-04-17
The text below is an extended version of my article published on the CBC News website: OPINION | The CAQ’s secularism bill is a positive step forward. It is reproduced here with the permission of CBC.
Sommaire en français Le texte ci-dessous est une version plus étoffée de mon article publié sur le site CBC News : OPINION | The CAQ’s secularism bill is a positive step forward (Opinion : Le projet de loi laïque de la CAQ constitue une avancée positive.) Il paraît ici avec la permission de CBC.
I, like the majority of Quebecers, am very happy that the Quebec government, elected in October 2018, has decided, via Draft Bill 21, to adopt secularism as official policy, including 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 and bigoted refusal–to understand a very simple principle: that civil servants on duty must be neutral.
In fact the Bill does not go far enough. It should apply to all public servants, not just some, and it should contain no exemptions. But at least it goes part way.
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 and unwelcome 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, and only while on the job.
Bill 21 does not in any way restrict freedom of religion. Rather it imposes a small, reasonable restriction on freedom of expression while the government employee is on the job. Quebec already has legislation which forbids such employees from wearing partisan political symbols on the job. Bill 21 extends this to partisan 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.
In particular, Bill 21 does not discriminate against Muslims as some falsely claim. The veil worn by some Muslim women is not representative of Islam in general, but only of a very fundamentalist and highly politicized form of that religion. Decades ago in most Muslim-majority countries, the veil was worn by very few women, mainly older women from the countryside or small towns, but now it has become much more widespread. Why is that? We all know why: because Islamists, falsely claiming to represent Muslims in general, have undertaken a massive propaganda campaign to promote the wearing of the veil, to normalize its presence anywhere and everywhere, to occupy territory by using veiled women as proxies for their politico-religious ideology.
Many immigrants came to Canada from Muslim-majority countries because they want to live in a more secular country and because they want to escape the growing, toxic influence of Islamism. Here in Quebec, for example, the Quebec Association of North Africans for Secularism (AQNAL) supports Bill 21 and opposes the negative stereotype of Muslims as always displaying their religion in ostentatious ways, an image promoted by Islamists for their own purposes.
Women who insist on wearing the veil here in non-Muslims countries such as Quebec and Canada are participating in that extreme right-wing campaign whether they realize it or not. Meanwhile, women in countries such as Iran risk arrest, corporal punishment or prison when they defy the obligation to wear the veil, which is a symbol of the servitude of women. All we ask, here is Quebec, is that veiled women remove their veil for the duration of their work shift if they work in the public service. By banning religious symbols in the workplace, we create a space of freedom in which ideologues such as Islamists cannot force their ideology on others.
Bill 21 does not deny employment to anyone. Rather, it requires that 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 when the law goes into effect. This is unfortunate, because it means that there will be serious inequalities among employees, some having an exemption and some not. It is also bad because it means that people who are served by exempted employees, or children who are taught by exempted teachers, with be captive audiences for partisan 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.
Some opponents of Bill 21 claim that it will cause a massive exodus of qualified workers from Quebec. That is called blackmail, a rather manipulative and mean-spirited tactic. I expect that the vast majority will comply with the legislation. As for the few who will not, what are we to think of a person who considers that they have a “right” to practice their religion even on the job? Religion should be a private matter. If an individual refuses to recognize that public service employees have a duty to behave with a certain degree of reserve and neutrality while on the job, then I question whether that individual is fully qualified for the position. At any rate, it is important that legislation such as Bill 21 be enacted as soon as possible as a preventive measure, before the number of persons affected grows, as it surely will in the near future given the privileges which religions currently enjoy.
Even worse, some opponents of Bill 21 make outrageous accusations against secularists and even against Quebecers in general (as the majority support the Bill), even attempting to associate them with horrific acts of violence such as those which occurred at mosques in Quebec City and Christchurch. Those who make such brazen allegations reveal two things about themselves: (1) their arguments are so weak that they must lower themselves to slander; and (2) their hatred of Quebecers is so intense that they indulge in anti-Québécois racism.
In order for the Quebec State to be religiously neutral, it is not enough to remove symbols only from the buildings. And it is not enough to remove them only from employees. Both must be done. It is a very good thing that the CAQ has announced that it will remove the crucifix from the Salon bleu 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 have a situation where the walls are neutral but not the people. Furthermore, teachers must comply with the ban, but whether or not classrooms have symbols is a decision left up to the school administration, so we may have situations where the teachers are neutral but the walls are not. The proposed legislation is imperfect. But without Bill 21 the situation is even worse, with no bans anywhere.
Bill 21 also bans face-coverings worn by public employees. Furthermore, it also bans users of public services from wearing face-coverings whenever identification or security concerns require that the face be visible, unless there are valid reasons related to health or handicap or if the face-covering is required for particular functions or tasks.
Probably the best aspect of Bill 21 is that it includes a good, precise definition of State secularism (i.e. “laïcité”) and then embeds that principle directly into the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That means that in future, this principle can be used to motivate and support future legislation extending the limited measures contained in the current Bill. In other words, Bill 21 sets the stage for future improvements.
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