Que­bec on cusp of ban­ning public worker re­li­gious wear

Fierce de­bate echoes burqa bat­tles in Europe

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY BARRY BROWN

TORONTO | De­vout Sikhs, prac­tic­ing Mus­lims, Or­tho­dox Jews and evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians work­ing in Que­bec’s public ser­vice will soon face a choice: Ei­ther honor their re­li­gious con­vic­tions or keep their jobs.

Law­mak­ers in Que­bec’s pro­vin­cial assem­bly are set to vote by the end of the week on a di­vi­sive mea­sure that would ban public em­ploy­ees from wear­ing any sym­bol of their re­li­gion on the job, an echo of the “burqa bans” adopted by a num­ber of Euro­pean coun­tries in re­cent years.

“Sec­u­lar­ism is not contrary to free­dom of re­li­gion,” Que­bec Premier Fran­cois Le­gault said of his gov­ern­ment’s

pro­posed law. For the past 10 years, Que­be­cois have been de­bat­ing the limits of re­li­gious ac­com­mo­da­tion in the public ser­vice and now “it’s time to set the rules,” he said in a public ad­dress to the prov­ince.

The is­sues of sec­u­lar­ism and re­li­gion’s role in the public square have pro­voked fierce de­bate in Que­bec and other Cana­dian provinces and could even play a role in na­tional elec­tions this fall.

When the bill was in­tro­duced, lib­eral Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau said it was “un­think­able” that “in a free so­ci­ety we would le­git­imize dis­crim­i­na­tion against cit­i­zens based on their re­li­gion,” but polls show strong ma­jori­ties across Canada sup­port what pro­po­nents call “re­li­gious neu­tral­ity” statutes.

Mr. Le­gault’s Coali­tion for Que­bec’s Fu­ture party won its first elec­tion in Oc­to­ber with a prom­ise that the prov­ince’s po­lice, pros­e­cu­tors, judges, po­lice guards and public school teach­ers will be banned from wear­ing Sikh tur­bans, Is­lamic hi­jabs, Jewish kip­pas or Chris­tian crosses while per­form­ing their public duty.

Bill 21 would not af­fect cur­rent em­ploy­ees, but all new po­si­tions and new hires would have to con­form to the stan­dards.

About 84% of Que­bec’s 6 mil­lion peo­ple are Ro­man Catholic, com­pared with just 1.5% Mus­lim and 1.24% Jewish.

Marc-An­dre Gos­selin, spokesman for Que­bec’s Min­istry of Im­mi­gra­tion, Diversity and In­clu­sion, de­fended the need for the bill.

“We be­lieve that these very spe­cific func­tions need to be com­pletely neu­tral in or­der to en­sure a neu­tral ser­vice from the state …,” Mr. Gos­selin said in an email re­sponse to The Wash­ing­ton Times. “We are not tar­get­ing one re­li­gion: all the re­li­gions are equal and on the same level.”

Que­bec polls also show more than 60% of vot­ers back the bill. Re­spon­dents have ex­pressed con­cern that their cul­tural iden­tity is be­ing un­der­mined by the grow­ing pres­ence of Is­lamic im­mi­grants from French-speak­ing coun­tries in Africa and Asia.

Fa­reen Khan, a Que­bec-based com­mu­ni­ca­tions profession­al, called the pro­posed law anti-re­li­gious and an ex­am­ple of “rad­i­cal athe­ism, shrouded in the lan­guage of ex­trem­ist sec­u­lar­ism.”

Que­bec’s min­is­ter re­spon­si­ble for the sta­tus of women all but con­firmed this when she at­tacked the hi­jab head­scarf worn by some Mus­lim woman as a sym­bol of re­li­gious op­pres­sion that “doesn’t meet my val­ues.”

An­tic­i­pat­ing chal­lenges that it vi­o­lates the Cana­dian Con­sti­tu­tion and Que­bec’s Char­ter of Hu­man Rights and Free­doms, writ­ers of the bill in­clude a con­sti­tu­tional ma­neu­ver that in­su­lates it from court chal­lenges for five years.

Crosses com­ing down

Of­fi­cials of school boards and the Montreal City Coun­cil have op­posed the law, although Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante has said the city will en­force the pro­hi­bi­tion if it be­comes law. Mr. Le­gault in­sists the bill is in line with Que­bec’s his­tory of sep­a­rat­ing re­li­gion and state that be­gan in the 1960s when the Ro­man Catholic Church lost its near mo­nop­oly on pro­vid­ing ed­u­ca­tion, heath and wel­fare ser­vices in the prov­ince.

To comply with the pro­posed law, Mr. Le­gault’s gov­ern­ment has agreed to re­move the Catholic cru­ci­fix that has been hang­ing on the wall of its prov­ince’s leg­is­la­ture since 1936 and or­dered lo­cal courts to re­move cru­ci­fixes. The Montreal City Coun­cil, though op­posed to Bill 21, has fol­lowed suit and voted to re­move its his­toric cru­ci­fix.

Crit­ics say the pro­posed law does not de­fine “re­li­gious sym­bol” or de­tail which agency will in­ves­ti­gate and rule on whether ear­rings in the shape of a cross are a re­li­gious sym­bol or a fashion ac­ces­sory, or whether a yin-yang tat­too is an il­le­gal dis­play of Tao­ism.

In re­sponse to the crit­i­cisms, Que­bec Im­mi­gra­tion Min­is­ter Si­mon Jolin-Bar­rette this week of­fered an amend­ment say­ing the bill was aimed specif­i­cally at “any article of cloth­ing, ac­ces­sory, head­gear or jew­elry that is worn as a show of faith or re­li­gious con­vic­tion” and “is rea­son­ably con­sid­ered as re­fer­ring to a re­li­gious af­fil­i­a­tion.”

But those distinctio­ns are not the main tar­get of the law. A May poll of over 1,200 Que­be­cois con­ducted on be­half of the As­so­ci­a­tion for Cana­dian Stud­ies found that the ma­jor­ity of Que­be­cois who sup­port the bill are mo­ti­vated pri­mar­ily by neg­a­tive feel­ings to­ward Mus­lims and Jews.

More than 50% of re­spon­dents said it was ac­cept­able for public school teach­ers to wear Chris­tian cru­ci­fixes or crosses, but only 30% agreed it was ac­cept­able for a public school teacher to wear a Jewish skull­cap and only 12% would let a fe­male teacher wear an Is­lamic head­scarf.

Ac­cord­ing to a poll com­mis­sioned by the gov­ern­ment, 63% of Que­be­cois agreed that crosses and other Chris­tian sym­bols that adorn public in­sti­tu­tions should re­main in place be­cause they are “part of the her­itage of Que­bec.”

Jack Jed­wab, pres­i­dent of the As­so­ci­a­tion for Cana­dian Stud­ies, said that de­spite the many out­ward signs of Chris­tian­ity, Que­bec is “one of the least re­li­gious places in North Amer­ica.”

In all of Que­bec, he said, fewer than 10 public school teach­ers wear the ha­jib and no po­lice of­fi­cers do so. Although Canada’s de­fense min­is­ter is a de­vout Sikh who wears a tur­ban and the Royal Cana­dian Mounted Po­lice and most ur­ban forces al­low re­li­gious gar­ments, Ms. Plante made head­lines last year when she sug­gested that her city’s po­lice think about al­low­ing their mem­bers to wear tur­bans and hi­jabs while on duty.

But among Que­bec’s French-speak­ing Catholic ma­jor­ity, sup­port for in­de­pen­dence from Canada has set­tled into a form of na­tion­al­ism that seeks more in­de­pen­dence from the rest of Canada, said Fran­cois Berg­eron, pub­lisher of L’Express, a French-lan­guage news­pa­per based in Toronto.

“This law shows who we are in Que­bec, thank you very much,” he said. “This ends the de­bate that was a waste of time. There’s no com­ing back af­ter this.”

At­tacks on Mus­lims

Some fear the dis­play of Que­bec na­tion­al­ism has co­in­cided with a rising num­ber of at­tacks on Mus­lims. Que­bec City Po­lice Chief Robert Pi­geon said the num­ber of hate crimes against Mus­lims in his city dou­bled in 2017. As Bill 21 was be­ing de­bated, a man was ar­rested for ha­rass­ing and in­sult­ing wor­ship­pers at a Que­bec City mosque where two years ago an anti-Mus­lim ex­trem­ist gunned down six peo­ple.

No one ob­jects to the public money Montreal spends on the 103-foot-high cross on Mount Royal that tra­di­tion­ally glows pur­ple when the Vat­i­can chooses a new pope. But a clash be­tween a group of Or­tho­dox Jews and a Montreal YMCA more than a decade ago gal­va­nized the re­li­gious ac­com­mo­da­tion is­sue for many Que­be­cois.

In 2006, the head of a con­gre­ga­tion of de­vout Ha­sidic Jews said his male students were be­ing dis­tracted from their re­li­gious stud­ies by the sight of women ex­er­cis­ing in the neigh­bor­ing branch of the YMCA. The con­gre­ga­tion’s rabbi asked the YMCA to re­place their clear win­dows with frosted ones and even of­fered to pay for the in­stal­la­tion.

The con­tro­versy ex­ploded into a public bat­tle be­tween ordinary Que­be­cois and de­mands from a re­li­gious “ghetto,” and the topic of “reasonable ac­com­mo­da­tion” of mi­nori­ties was a hot political is­sue in the 2007 pro­vin­cial elec­tion. Although the YMCA did in­stall opaque win­dows, it has since re­placed them with clear glass.

Mr. Gos­selin strongly de­nied any link be­tween the push for the re­li­gious sym­bol ban and vi­o­lence against re­li­gious mi­nori­ties, in­sist­ing the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment “strongly de­nounces every in­tol­er­ant act or speech.”

“There is no link be­tween de­bate on sec­u­lar­ism and hate crimes,” he in­sisted. Que­bec is one of the most wel­com­ing na­tions and it will re­main so, he added.

But Mr. Trudeau, op­po­si­tion Con­ser­va­tive leader An­drew Scheer and Jag­meet Singh, leader of the New Demo­cratic Party, have spo­ken out against the bill. But Mr. Singh, a tur­ban-wear­ing Sikh, has spo­ken of his “hurt” per­sonal feel­ings that de­spite his ac­com­plish­ments and con­tri­bu­tions to the coun­try, he can run for prime min­is­ter in Ottawa but may soon be blocked from becoming a teacher or po­lice of­fi­cer in Que­bec.

Noa Men­del­sohn Aviv, di­rec­tor of the equal­ity pro­gram at the Cana­dian Civil Lib­er­ties As­so­ci­a­tion, said the law has no clearly de­fined goal or so­cial prob­lem it is meant to solve and thus may be vul­ner­a­ble to a le­gal chal­lenge.

This pro­posed law is “a non-solution in search of a non-prob­lem,” she said.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Cana­dian Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau says it is “un­think­able” that “in a free so­ci­ety we would le­git­imize dis­crim­i­na­tion against cit­i­zens based on their re­li­gion,” but polls show that strong ma­jori­ties sup­port what pro­po­nents call “re­li­gious neu­tral­ity” statutes.

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