(Aug. 6, 2019) On June 16, 2019, Quebec’s National Assembly, in a 75–35 vote, passed Bill No. 21, which prohibits the display of religious symbols by public-sector workers in the work place. The controversial Bill was the government’s fourth attempt in the past decade to introduce religious neutrality to the province. (Bill No. 21, An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State, June 16, 2019.)
The passing of Bill 21 represents the fulfillment of a major campaign promise for the Coalition Avenir Québec party. While Bill 21 has caused an uproar among religious minorities, Prime Minister François Legault continues to assure the public that his objective is to unite Quebecers. Coalition Avenir Québec has stated that the motivation for enacting Bill 21 lies in Quebec’s civil law tradition and distinct social values, which have historically developed an attachment to state laicity. The bill defines “laicity” as a form of secularism separating religion from government. (Id. Explanatory Notes.)
Provisions of the Bill
Bill 21 provides that laicity is based on four principles: the separation of state and religions, religious neutrality of the state, equality of all citizens, and freedom of conscience and religion. (Id.) Chapter 2 of the Bill speaks to the prohibition of religious symbols, while chapter 3 specifies services during the provision of which workers are required to uncover their faces. (Id. § 6.) Chapter 2 states that personnel listed in schedule 2 are prohibited from wearing religious symbols while at work. (Id.) This includes commissioners appointed by the government, lawyers under the authority of the government, peace officers exercising their functions mainly in Quebec, and educators working in Quebec public schools, among others. However, this prohibition does not apply to certain public-sector workers who held their positions at the time of the Bill’s introduction. Chapter 3 provides that personnel listed in schedules 1 and 2 must carry out their tasks with their faces unveiled. (Id. ch. III; see also id. scheds. 1 & 2.) Similarly, those expecting to receive services from the listed personnel must likewise have their faces uncovered for identification purposes. (Id.)
Arguably, the most significant change resulting from Bill 21 is an amendment of the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms requiring the inclusion in the Charter’s preamble of a declaration affirming the fundamental importance of state secularism. (Id. § 17.) Specifically, the amendment stresses that people must have proper regard for state laicity when exercising their fundamental freedoms and rights. (Id.) In accordance with section 18 of the Bill, state laicity is also added to the democratic values listed in the Charter. (Id. § 18.)
Prospect of Challenges to the Bill
Despite the controversial nature of Bill 21, challenging it may prove difficult in that the Bill invokes a rarely used loophole of the Canadian Constitution—section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Also known as the “notwithstanding clause,” this section allows the federal, provincial, and territorial governments to override or bypass certain Charter rights. (Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, pt. 1 of the Constitution Act, 1982.) These overrides last only five years, at which point they are subject to renewal. This clause, however, has not stopped critics from promptly taking action against the Bill. A lawsuit filed in the Quebec Superior Court on behalf of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the National Council of Muslims argues that Bill 21 resembles criminal legislation and is therefore beyond provincial jurisdiction. It also emphasizes that the ban on “religious symbols” is vague and impossible to apply consistently, thus violating the basic requirements of the rule of law. Catching worldwide attention, United Nations rapporteurs have also sent a letter of concern to Quebec’s National Assembly via the Canadian mission in Geneva maintaining that Bill 21 threatens freedoms protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Reactions to the Bill
In Quebec, the legislation sparked several demonstrations both before and after its passage. Quebecers who wear religious symbols continue to express their frustration and anger. Many have vocalized feeling torn between preserving their religious practices and pursuing their profession. Montreal’s mayor, Valérie Plante, has declared that the Bill neither represents the city’s values nor respects the autonomy of the municipalities. McGill University’s Faculty of Education has also expressed strong opposition to Bill 21, declaring in an official statement released after the passing of the Bill that “Bill 21 suggests to a portion of our students that they are not welcome in public schools because of their religious cultural practices. Consequently, Bill 21 goes against our Faculty’s inclusive values of providing all of our students, regardless of religious affiliation, with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed as teachers, principals, school psychologists, special care counsellors, among other educator roles.” Despite the opposition to the Bill, Prime Minister Legault maintains that the Bill has the support of a majority of Quebecers, who believe that it creates a space for freedom in the workplace.
Prepared by Haviva Yesgat, Law Library intern, under the supervision of Tariq Ahmad, Foreign Law Specialist.