Quebec’s Draft Bill 21 Implements State Secularism

Last modification: 2019-03-29 at 08:15, added third point under bad news.

A quick overview of Draft Bill 21, tabled today by the Quebec government.

Sommaire en français Un bref résumé du projet de loi 21, déposé aujourd’hui par le gouvernement du Québec.

Keeping its promise to pass significant secular legislation, today the Quebec government of the CAQ (Coalition Avenir Québec) tabled Draft Bill 21 which implements State secularism. This legislation has been anticipated since the CAQ was elected in October 2018. Below is a list of the main provisions of the proposed legislation. I am not a lawyer, so I may misinterpret some of the details, in which case I will correct this summary as soon as possible.

The Bill includes a coherent four-part definition State secularism:

  1. Separation between the State and religions;
  2. Religious neutrality of the State;
  3. Equality of all citizens, whether male of female; and
  4. Freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.

The good news:

  • Today as it tabled the Draft Bill, the government also tabled a motion to remove that notorious crucifix, currently hanging above the speaker’s chair in the Salon bleu of the National Assembly, after the Bill is passed. The Assembly passed the motion unanimously. Excellent news.
  • The Bill adds the principle of State secularism to the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms, thus giving it near-constitutional status.
  • The fact that both religion-State separation and religious neutrality are listed in the Bill’s definition of secularism indicates that the authors of the legislation understand the important distinction between these two aspects: i.e. that neutrality alone is inadequate without separation.
  • The Bill bans the wearing of religious symbols by public servants (while on duty) in position of authority, including teachers in public schools. It would be preferable to ban religious symbols for all public servants, including all employees of public schools and childcare centres, but the Bill’s partial ban is a good first step.
  • The Bill bans the wearing of face-coverings by public servants (while on duty) in general.
  • The Bill bans the wearing of face-coverings by users of public services if visibility of the face is necessary for reasons of identification or security. Exceptions are allowed for reasons of health or handicap or if the face-covering is required for particular functions or tasks.
  • No accommodation may be allowed, i.e. no exceptions to the bans on religious symbols or face-coverings, for reasons other than those stated in the Bill. In other words, no religious accommodation.

And some bad news:

  • Draft Bill 21 has a so-called grandfather clause which grants an exemption to the religious symbol ban for those employees already working in the public service on the date the Bill is adopted. This is unfortunate, as it will lead to obvious inequalities, with some public servants being granted the privilege of wearing religious symbols and others not. Fortunately, this exemption is lost if the employee transfers from one job position to another, thus imposing a certain limitation.
  • As mentioned above, the religious symbol ban does not apply to all public servants. In particular, it does not apply to all employees of public schools (only to teachers, principals and vice-principals), nor does it apply to childcare centres.
  • The Bill does not ban religious symbols worn by MNAs (Members of National Assembly). This is inconsistent with removal of the crucifix from the legislature.

In summary, Draft Bill 21 is certainly incomplete, but it takes significant steps towards implementing State secularism in Quebec. A completely secular State would ban the wearing of religious symbols by all its employees. But the ban on at least those in authority indicates that the Bill’s authors understand that removing such symbols from buildings is not enough. Both State installations and State employees must display a neutral appearance; it would be inconsistent to insist on one without the other. Indeed, failing to ban the wearing of religious symbols amounts to granting a religious privilege—the privilege of indulging in religious advertising while on the job—and constitutes a form of discrimination against atheists, other non-believers and those believers who have no intention of wearing an obvious symbol.

Furthermore, a complete secular program would also involve several other measures not mentioned in the Bill. For example: the Ethics and Religious Culture program should be abolished; all public funding to private schools, many of which are religious, should be cut; all fiscal advantages granted to religious institutions must be abolished; etc. However, the fact that Draft Bill 21 includes a coherent definition of secularism and adds the principle of secularism to the Quebec Charter is reason for optimism, because that principle may be used to support future legislation extending the limited measures contained in the current Bill.

The Quebec population strongly supports secularism, but many mainstream media, especially the English-language media, are virulently opposed. All three major federal political parties immediately made exaggerated statements about how bad this legislation is. They are of course wrong, as all three are simply anti-secular and support religious privileges. For all its shortcomings, this Draft Bill 21 is a very good step forward for secularism in Quebec. The CAQ government is to be congratulated for having the courage to go ahead with it, in spite of the overwhelming anti-secular propaganda which often sinks to the level of defaming anyone who supports it. The next few weeks and months promise to be very turbulent.

Next blog: Tobacco, Politics and Religion

4 thoughts on “Quebec’s Draft Bill 21 Implements State Secularism”

  1. I am all in favour of state secularism, and agree that the burqa and crucifix are abominations. But do you really want to see the likes of Jagmeet Singh and Monia Mazigh barred from public service in your adopted province?

    1. Your question is dishonest. The legislation says nothing about barring people from public service. It bars (in some jobs) religious SYMBOLS, not believers. Religious symbols are not part of the body. They can be removed (or put back on) with no harm whatsoever to the wearer.

      1. Nonsense. If a Sikh removes his turban he is no longer a Sikh. If you require that he does so, you are denying him his right — his human right — to religious freedom. Whatever you think of the argument I’m making, the practical effect of Bill 21 will be to exclude persons of certain beliefs (those that happen to involve outward expressions in the form of garments), while not excluding klansmen, male ISIS militants and others whose beliefs are manifested in other ways.

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