QUEBEC – The Quebec government tabled legislation Thursday to prohibit public sector employees in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols at work.
The law affects teachers, judges, police officers, prison guards, Crown prosecutors and other public servants in positions of authority. But it contains a provision permitting current employees in those positions to continue wearing religious symbols.
Titled, “An act respecting the laicity of the state,” Bill 21 aims to fulfil a Coalition Avenir Quebec election promise. Premier Francois Legault has said the proposal is supported by a majority of Quebecers.
Speaking to reporters in Halifax Thursday before the bill had been tabled, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he would wait to study it before commenting in detail, but he clearly signalled his opposition.
“Canada, and indeed Quebec, are places where we are a secular society, we respect deeply people’s rights and freedoms, including freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion,” Trudeau said. “It is unthinkable to me that in a free society, we would legitimize discrimination against citizens based on their religion.”
Civil rights groups have criticized the Legault government’s plan. Before the text was even made public, one Montreal school board declared its intention to disobey a law that it said would violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
But the bill contains provisions to shield it from court challenge. It declares that it will have affect “notwithstanding” protections in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and “despite” protections in the provincial Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.
In the bill’s preamble, the government says its measures are based on four principles: “the separation of state and religions, the religious neutrality of the state, the equality of all citizens, and freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.”
In an about-face before the bill was tabled, the government said it would propose a motion calling for the withdrawal of the crucifix from the provincial legislature.
The crucifix has hung above the Speaker’s chair in the national assembly since 1936, and the Legault government said last October it would not remove it because it is an important part of the province’s heritage.
Opposition to the government’s plan has been growing. On Wednesday night, the English Montreal School Board adopted a motion declaring its refusal to implement legislation restricting the wearing of religious symbols.
Julien Feldman, chairman of the EMSB’s human resources committee, said the board has never received a complaint from a student or parent about a teacher’s religious symbol.
“This proposed legislation would be contrary to the values the EMSB teaches its children, in particular, values of diversity, acceptance, tolerance and respect for individual rights and religious freedoms,” Feldman said in a statement.
The board’s resolution came a day after a major teachers’ federation spoke out against the planned legislation and filed a lawsuit to stop government attempts to count the number of teachers who wear religious symbols.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Legault said the secularism bill would contain compromises, adding that his goal was to be “unifying.”