On 16 June, Quebec’s Assemblée Nationale passed Bill 21, the “Loi sur la laïcité de l’État / An Act respecting the laicity of the State”, which bans certain public servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols, defined as:
“clothing, symbol, jewelry, ornament, accessory or headgear that is worn in connection with a religious conviction or belief and can reasonably be considered as referring to a religious affiliation.”
The final vote on the Bill was 73 in favour and 35 against, with the governing Coalition Avenir Québec and the Parti Québecois voting in favour and the Liberals and Québec solidaire opposing it.
The Montreal Gazette reported that, in a last-minute change of policy, the Government announced that it would establish surveillance and disciplinary mechanisms to ensure that the Act was respected.
Under the terms of the Bill as originally drafted, the Government had said that it would be up to the highest local administrators — whether in a school or a police force — to apply it and went no further. The Government decided, however, to specify a designated person to ensure that the law is being observed, with the power to impose “corrective measures”. Further, employees in a Ministry covered by the law may be subject to disciplinary measures or measures already included under the terms of their working conditions.
The Act will mean that certain public servants in positions of authority will not be able to wear religious symbols such as a hijab, crucifix, turban or kippah at work: the list of such persons includes judges, police officers, government lawyers and elementary and high school principals, vice-principals and teachers. The Act provides that employees who already wear religious symbols at work may continue to do so, but they will lose that right if they change jobs or accept a promotion. The Act will also require people receiving or giving government services to uncover their faces for security purposes or to confirm their identity – a requirement that will mostly affect Muslim women who wear the niqab.
And as we noted in our earlier post, the Act and the amendments made by Chapter V will have effect notwithstanding the Charter of Rights and Freedoms provisions of the Constitution Act 1982. It has also amended Quebec’s Provincial Charter of Rights so as to reduce religious rights.
According to the Toronto Globe and Mail, Montreal school boards and some municipal leaders have already said that they will not apply the Act, while the School of Education at Bishop’s University – one of the three English-language universities in Quebec – called it “a dangerous precedent that creates a climate of suspicion, fear and hostility that serves to render the profession of teaching unsafe, and schools less safe, for everyone.” CTV News reported that the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Ichrak Nourel Hak – a student at the Francophone Université de Montréal who wears a hijab – promptly applied to the Superior Court of Quebec for a stay on the sections of the Act that prohibit public sector employees from wearing religious symbols at work. They are also seeking a stay on the provision that requires people to give or receive state services with their faces uncovered.
The final version of the amended text does not yet appear to have been published.