(This installment was originally scheduled for January 9th but was delayed until January 16th.)
The big news from Canada in January 2021 is the court challenge to Bill 21 before Quebec Superior Court.
Bill 21 was adopted in June 2019 by the legislature of the Canadian province of Quebec. It partially implements State secularism in that province. The law defines secularism via four principles:
- Freedom of conscience
- State religious neutrality
- Separation between religions and State
The Bill adds the precept of State secularism to the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms and guarantees secular services to citizens.
Bill 21 bans civil servants in positions of authority – police, judges, prosecutors, prison guards and schoolteachers – from wearing religious symbols while on the job. It also bans face-coverings for both civil servants and users.
The law is being challenged in the courts by a woman who wants to wear a hijab while working as a teacher, and she is supported in this challenge by almost a score of different organizations and individuals.
On the other side, only three organizations have intervened in the case in support of the legislation, alongside the Attorney-General of Quebec. They are:
- Atheist Freethinkers, the organization with which I work;
- The Mouvement laïque québécois or Quebec Secular Movement;
- PDF-Québec, a feminist organization,
After six long weeks of testimony and arguments, the court proceedings ended in mid-December, but the judge’s decision is pending and will not be known for at least several weeks. Regardless of that decision, it will almost certainly be appealed by the losing side to the Quebec Court of Appeal and, after that, to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Quebec is in the vanguard of secularism in North America. Bill 21 is landmark legislation which must be defended against the enemies of secularism who are numerous and well-funded. However, they have no cogent arguments. Unfortunately, no atheist or similar organization in Canada outside Quebec has, to the best of my knowledge, taken a position in favour of Bill 21. Even worse, some have shamefully and hypocritically taken a position against Bill 21.
The ban on religious symbols in Bill 21 is moderate, in fact timid compared to similar legislation in European countries. If you oppose it, you are opposing secularism. Do you really want to see police wearing pastafarian colanders or niqabs on the job? To allow that would be a clear violation of religion-State separation.
The ban on teachers wearing religious symbols is particularly important. Children are a captive audience for hours every school day. They look to their teachers as role models. A teacher who wears a religious symbol on the job is engaging in a form of passive proselytism which is unacceptable in that context. If teachers were to wear ads for commercial products or political parties on their bodies while teaching, that would be similarly unacceptable.
In our intervention before the Court, our lawyer argued that freedom of conscience includes both freedom OF and freedom FROM religion. A ban on religious symbols on the job is a small and reasonable limitation on the freedom of expression of the employee in order to protect the freedom of conscience of school students and civil service users.
Our intervention before the court is costly. We ask for your help in paying our legal fees if you are able to contribute: