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A Delicate Balance

Quebec's religious-symbol issue isn’t as black-and-white as it seems


The François Legault government in Quebec has faced considerable controversy this year over the passage of Bill 21, unofficially known as the province’s “secularism law”, in June. This legislation prohibits all public workers in positions of authority from wearing any religious symbols, from turbans and hijabs to kippas and crosses. It covers a wide spectrum of workers, including teachers, police officers, prison guards, judges, lawyers and others.

On the most basic level, this law (for some) is clearly a form of workplace discrimination. Even if you’re an agnostic like me, it shouldn’t be hard to see that. It’s a violation of freedoms that should be protected. Workers of all faiths should have the right to wear these spiritual symbols if they choose, and denying them that right does nothing to discourage racial or religious bigotry and incivility among work colleagues. It also contradicts a key value of democracy, the separation of church and state — in the sense that the government is enforcing a total absence of religion, at least in work environments.

Yet a different approach to the issue surfaced on September 12, when the Quebec Court of Appeal ruled that Sikh truck drivers — presumably not part of the Bill 21 group — have to remove their turbans in order to wear safety headgear when required. Three drivers were seeking an exemption to their jobs’ requirement of donning hardhats when they left their vehicles at the Port of Montreal, due to their religious beliefs. But the Court decision deemed that workplace safety had to take precedence over freedom of religious expression in this case. The drivers’ employers, private trucking companies, had adopted the policy to protect the workers and to fulfill a legal requirement.

The trucking case suggests that the religious-symbol issue isn’t as black-and-white as it seems. Does occupational health and safety trump religious freedom in certain cases? Under what circumstances is it more appropriate — and more morally sensible — to protect the worker’s body than to protect his or her cultural expression? Can you truly call it discrimination when the obvious intention is to save lives?

Perhaps “intention” is the key word here. Certain professions — construction, factory work, firefighting and so on — require protective headgear by law because they come with the hazard of falling objects striking a worker’s head and causing concussion, brain damage, or death. This risk affects everyone in those work environments, regardless of religious affiliation. Yet it’s hard to imagine many of the professions associated with Bill 21 — teaching or legal representation, for example — posing that same risk. In those cases, it’s much harder to justify the Quebec government’s sweeping move to wipe out religious wear in the workplace, and the intention appears more sinister.

Employers, and those who create employment laws, need to find a delicate balance between protecting workers’ safety and protecting their human rights. Everybody in the workforce needs to be treated and respected equally, and they also need to be equally safe. Without both, you can’t honestly call a workplace a safe space for all.