On Wednesday October 18, 2017, the Quebec National Assembly adopted Bill 62, making it law, by a vote of 66 to 51. All votes in favour came from the governing party (except for one independent and former member of that party) while the entire opposition voted against. The law’s unwieldy title is “An Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality and, in particular, to provide a framework for requests for accommodations on religious grounds in certain bodies.”
Rarely has a law been simultaneously so controversial and so poorly understood. This incomprehension is largely a result of widespread tendentious commentary from ideologues who take a dogmatic position against any ban on religious symbols, thus giving religion a priority over and above gender equality, the fight against religious fundamentalism and fanaticism, security or any other consideration. Such ideologues have a vested interest in spreading confusion about questions such as secularism and freedom of religion. The purpose of this blog is to clarify some of these issues.
Bill 62 purports to implement religious neutrality for the province of Quebec, but it only does so in a very timid fashion. Furthermore, it comes nowhere near implementing secularism.
What does Bill 62 do?
- It implements a very weak version of state religious neutrality.
- It bans face-coverings when giving or receiving public services.
- BUT it allows accommodations as long as they do not compromise security, identification or communication—thus providing an easy way to avoid the ban in many cases.
- It implicitly allows, everywhere, all religious symbols which do not cover the face, including the tchador.
- It allows health professionals to refuse to provide services incompatible with their personal convictions.
What does Bill 62 NOT do?
- It does not ban religious symbols in general, either in public services or anywhere else.
- It does not ban religious symbols worn by state representatives in position of authority, such as police, judges and prison guards.
- It does not call for removal of the large crucifix hanging on the wall in the blue chamber of the National Assembly.
- It does not implement a secular state, because secularism is much more than just religious neutrality. A secular state is autonomous and operates independently of any religious ideology or institution.
- It does not ban the veiling of young girls, which is a form of child abuse.
- It does not recognize that the Islamic veil, especially the niqab and burqa, is a politico-religious propaganda tool which promotes misogyny, gender segregation and the subjugation of women.
- It does nothing to change the fiscal privileges enjoyed by religious institutions.
Let us be very clear: If this law did in fact implement a clear and definitive ban on face-coverings at least for those providing or receiving public services, then it would have merit. It is perfectly reasonable and indeed necessary for individuals to reveal their faces in such situations and in many others. It is completely unacceptable to use religion as an excuse to defy this basic requirement. However, Bill 62 does not go that far because it allows religious accommodations, i.e. workarounds.
In the final analysis, Bill 62 has little to do with religious neutrality: although it focuses on banning face-coverings, the reasons it invokes for enforcing the ban have nothing to do with either religion or neutrality. We, AFT, opposed this law because it is totally inadequate; see: “Draft Bill 62 grants privileges to religions, thus defying religious neutrality.”
Several politicians, especially those who dogmatically support communitarianism, have criticized the law for going too far! Apparently they would allow face-coverings anywhere and everywhere. And since they would allow the proliferation of such an extreme symbol of gender segregation and religious fanaticism as the niqab, they clearly would have no objection to religious symbols in general. And they could not therefore object to political symbols anywhere and everywhere. Therefore, they would have to accept an on-duty policeman, policewoman, judge, prison guard or public school teacher who:
- wears a huge crucifix on their chest;
- wears swastikas on their sleeves or other visible locations;
- wears a hijab, tchador, niqab or burqa;
- displays a large photo of Stalin, Hitler, Trump, Trudeau or any other personality on their chest or back;
Those who oppose any ban on religious symbols in general and face-coverings in particular claim that such a ban would harm Muslim women. They are wrong. Muslim women in general do not wear such accoutrements, especially the niqab or burqa; only the most fundamentalist do. In fact, women who wear the niqab in Western countries fall into two categories: either (1) they are forced to do so by religious fanatics in their family or community or (2) they wear it willingly and thus are themselves fanatics. In the first case, banning face-coverings helps them by giving them excellent support to defy those who are forcing them. Furthermore, women who complain about a ban generally fall into category (2) because those who are forced by others to wear the niqab are not free to express their personal opinion. In either case, refusing to ban face-coverings amounts to capitulation in the face of religious fanaticism, fundamentalism and extremism. We must be resolute in our opposition to those who seek to normalize this odious symbol of misogyny and the servitude of women.
By adopting Bill 62, the Quebec Liberal Party (QLP) government and Premier Philippe Couillard hope to have the last word on the long-standing debate about secularism in Quebec. Their expectation is that the issue will be laid to rest and the matter closed. They are completely wrong of course, because Quebeckers in general are very favourable to secularism—more specifically republican secularism or laïcité—and will never be satisfied with such feeble legislation.
Nevertheless, the adoption of this law does unfortunately represent a victory for Couillard and the QLP, because it will make future progress toward secularism even more difficult. The law allows religious symbols worn by on-duty public servants—even the tchador which technically does not cover the face but is more restrictive than the hijab—thus normalizing such symbols and making it more difficult to implement any ban in future. The law codifies religious accommodations for face-coverings, thus making it easy to work around the weak ban which the law does specify. In practical terms, this law guarantees yet another privilege to religions which already enjoy a wide variety of undeserved legal and financial prerogatives. As Fatima Houda-Pepin has observed, Bill 62 is “a step backwards for women’s rights and for Quebec.”
Despite the incessant whining of the spineless who would allow religious symbols to become ubiquitous and who constantly slander anyone who disagrees with their complacency, Bill 62 does not go too far. On the contrary, it does not go nearly far enough. It is proof, if any further proof were needed, of the intellectual and political bankrupcy of the current Quebec government of the so-called “Liberal” party.