The 16th of June 2019: An historic day for Quebec and a great victory for secularism and democracy: the National Assembly adopts Bill 21, “An Act respecting the laicity of the State.” Despite its weaknesses and shortcomings, in particular in matters of taxation, this Bill formally declares Quebec to be a secular State and enshrines that secularism in the Charter.
The opposition whined about the fact that the CAQ government used closure to cut the debate short in order to have the bill adopted more quickly. However, closure is a parliamentary tool which has been used many times by various governments. It would have been a waste of time to allow the so-called “debate” to continue. That “debate” consisted basically of the opposition repeating ad nauseam the same fallacious (and sometimes toxic and hysterical) arguments, the same gratuitous accusations against the government and the same expressions of contempt for the population which massively supports the Bill.
Just before its adoption, several amendments were made to the draft legislation:
- A simple, clear definition of religious symbols:
“A religious symbol, within the meaning of this section, is any object, including clothing, a symbol, jewellery, an adornment, an accessory or headwear that
- is worn in connection with a religious conviction or belief; or
- is reasonably considered as referring to a religious affiliation.”
- Measures to monitor the application of the law and to respond to instances of noncompliance if any.
- The declaration of a new right:
“State laicity also requires that all persons have the right to lay parliamentary, government and judicial institutions, and to lay public services…”
Each of these three amendments constitutes an improvement and an enhancement of the law. The first adds clarity. The second is necessary because a law which fails to provide any means of monitoring or enforcement is ineffectual. But it is the third amendment which is most significant because it grants citizens a means of asserting a crucially important right that is rarely recognized: the right to secular public services provided by State institutions. This provision corrects, in part at least, the problem caused by the bill’s so-called “grandfather” clause which would allow any employee hired before the draft legislation’s publication date to keep their religious symbols. The parents of a pupil whose teacher wears a religious symbol may now require that the school provide their child an environment free of such symbols.
Opponents of the legislation have frequently and falsely accused it of violating rights. On the contrary, Bill 21 withdraws certain religious privileges—the privilege of being allowed to promote one’s ideology in the public service—and it protects and extends rights in at least two ways. Firstly, by banning religious symbols worn by public servants in positions of authority, it helps to protect the freedom of conscience of users and pupils. Secondly, this amendment enhances rights by adding a right to secular services, free of religious interference.
The main beneficiaries of this law are schoolchildren and Muslim women. Schoolchildren benefit because they will be better protected by a school system with fewer religious displays. Muslim women benefit because it will help them resist the pressure to wear the veil, pressure imposed by Islamists who weaponize the veil for their own political purposes. This law is therefore particularly important and beneficial for daughters of Muslim parents because it offers these girls the possibility of greater autonomy from their religious community.
But this law will be good for everyone (except, of course, for fundamentalists) because it will help to protect the freedom of conscience of each and every person, whether female or male, child or adult, regardless of their religious convictions. The amendment which stipulates that every person has a right to secular public services is an explicit guarantee of that protection.
There are of course a certain number of Muslim women who noisily declare their determination to continue wearing the veil at all costs, their opposition to Bill 21 and their hatred for the government and the nation that adopted it, but they are far from being in the majority. These veiled women, in collaboration with antisecularists (who hide behind the euphemism “multiculturalism”), constitute objective allies of the fundamentalist Islamist extreme right.
Challenges to Bill 21 began immediately after its adoption. This is in no way surprising. We know whom we are dealing with. A veiled student, Ichrak Nourel Hak, launched a suite against the law, supported by the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA). These are the same two associations which attacked the only provision of Bill 62 (adopted by the previous Liberal government of P. Couillard) which had any semblance of merit, its article 10 banning face-coverings in the public service.
As Loïc Tassé so justly observed in the pages of the Journal de Montréal, the controversy surrounding secularism is a conflict between democracy and religious fundamentalism. This battle is being waged before the courts, among other battlegrounds. As Fatima Houda-Pepin observes, we are living in the era of judicial jihad. This is an ideological battle being waged inside western democracies.
The most positive and promising aspect of Bill 21 is arguably its formal declaration that the Quebec State is secular and the enshrining of this principle in the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. This provision constitutes a powerful legislative tool which will facilitate the continued secularization of the State in future. It is important, for example, that the Ethics and Religious Culture programme—or at least its “religious culture” part— be withdrawn from Quebec schools because it indoctrinates pupils by presenting a sugar-coated and communitarian vision of religions. All faculties of theology must be withdrawn from publicly funded universities and all so-called “religious studies” programmes must be subjected to review. It is also important to extend the ban on religious symbols to private schools, childcare centres and finally to the entire public service.
But the issue which is undoubtedly of the highest priority, completely forgotten in Bill 21 which does not even mention it, is the tax system, i.e. the fiscal advantages and privileges which religious institutions have enjoyed for so long. Precise figures are difficult to obtain, but the cost to the taxpayer probably amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars for Quebec alone. The problem stems mainly from the fact that Quebec accepts the federal definition of a charity which includes as one of its criteria the advancement of religion. The daily newspaper Le Devoir recently published an important series of articles on this topic. The organization Pour les droits de femmes du Québec (PDF-Q, For the Rights of Quebec Women) which, like us at AFT, participates in the Alliance for Secularism, addressed the issue of a complete revision of the tax system which currently favours religions when it appeared before the parliamentary committee of the National Assembly studying Draft Bill 21.
In the months and years to come, secular activists must give very high priority to this issue of tax privileges granted to religions. The adoption of Bill 21 provides us with an excellent opening to do just that.
As for the hypocrites who call themselves “secularists” but who oppose Bill 21, they must now make a choice between two diverging paths: either they continue their alliance with the religious far-right, or they instead choose democracy, modernity and secularism.
Note: I thank François Côté for his very useful comments, displayed on Facebook, concerning the legal implications of the amendment on the right to secular public services.