The government of Quebec earned the respect and support of the electorate when it proposed and passed the most important secular legislation ever seen in recent decades in Quebec, or anywhere in the Americas: the famous Bill 21 or An Act respecting the laicity of the State. But now, the government must not be allowed to sit on its laurels. If it does nothing to extend secularism further, beyond what Bill 21 does, to fill in some of the gaps left by that legislation, it must at a strict minimum ensure that Bill 21 is fully enforced.
And indeed, serious problems with respect to secularism are coming to light. We recently learned, in early August, that the CAQ government will contribute some 20 million dollars to preserve and enhance religious heritage sites in Quebec in 2019-2020. Of that amount 5 million will be used to convert buildings to new uses. That means that three quarters of the money will apparently be spent to maintain churches which are still in use as churches. And yet, religious institutions already enjoy major tax exemptions. Furthermore, the Catholic Church, a very rich international organization, fully capable of paying its own debts, must be considered a sort of mafia, a major threat to human freedom and a purveyor of child abuse. We understand the need to preserve Quebec’s architectural heritage, but why would a government which claims to be secular contribute public funds for the maintenance of buildings which are not owned by the State but rather by a religious institution?
A little later in August, this same government responded negatively to a request from several parents that Bill 21’s article 4, which declares the right of all persons to secular public services, be properly enforced. Given that any teacher who was already employed as such before the legislation’s publication date will be exempted from the religious symbol ban (by virtue of the Bill’s so-called “grandfather clause”), the parents requested that, in light of article 4, their children not be placed in a class whose teacher wears a religious symbol. A simple change of classroom would suffice to satisfy such a request, without affecting the right of the teacher to continue wearing his or her symbol. But the minister of education Roberge closed the door to that. Worse still, one father who made the request was accused of being a “racist” by a school commissioner, a defamatory and unacceptable accusation and unworthy coming from an elected official.
One could say that the honeymoon is over. Except that, there never was a honeymoon. We and our colleagues of the Rassemblement pour la laïcité (Alliance for Secularism) have always criticized the weaknesses of the legislation while simultaneously supporting it for what it does to advance secularism in Quebec. Now that the law has been adopted, we celebrate this victory, but we know that an enormous amount of work remains to be done.
Certainly we must continue to defend Bill 21 against the fanatical opposition coming from the enemies of secularism. There is already a case before the courts, launched by an education student and supported by the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), who were recently joined by the The World Sikh Organization of Canada. Fortunately Justice Yergeau has already rejected the request for immediate suspension of the religious symbol ban, but the complainants have appealed that decision. Furthermore, the substantive issue, i.e. the challenge to Bill 21 by the same complainants, remains before the courts.
In addition to the court challenges, a new “No to Bill 21” campaign was launched in early September. To no-one’s surprise, the campaign launch was held at a church, specifically St. James United in downtown Montreal. Recall that the United Church of Canada is an enthusiastic and longtime supporter of this communitarian anti-secular movement. In 2016, St. James Church organized, in collaboration with the Muslim Association of Canada, a public prayer event on St. Catherine Street. In 2015 the moderator of the United Church foolishly denounced as “Islamophobia” any opposition to the proliferation of the niqab in Canada.
As always, anti-secularists who oppose Bill 21 dishonestly spread the misconception that the law is a threat to rights. In reality, Bill 21 helps to protect the freedom of conscience of users of public services and students in public schools. The Bill’s opponents grant absolute and infinite priority to the privilege of State employees who choose to perform religious advertising during their working hours. Thus, these opponents completely neglect the freedom of conscience of users and students. And yet, it is the rights of these users and students which should have priority over those of employees.
We must therefore continue to support the government—to the extent that it defends its own law. However, if it fails to do so, if it fails to enforce fully the provisions of Bill 21 as it appears to be doing in the case of parents requesting a class change for their students, then this government no longer deserves our support. We must denounce its negligence in this matter.
If there is one lesson to be learned in all this confusion, it is the futility of aiming for moderation in a situation where compromise is impossible. By adopting a law which is moderate, even timid, by banning religious symbols in only part of the public service, the CAQ was trying to please both sides but satisfied neither. Such an attempt at compromise was destined to fail. Remember the extremely weak Bill 62 passed by the previous government, a law which banned only face-coverings, and even then included accommodations, i.e. exceptions, which made this minimal ban even weaker. But even that insignificant provision was too much for the anti-secular fanatics who contested Bill 62 before the courts just as they are now contesting Bill 21. Any attempt to compromise with them is completely useless.
Furthermore, the grandfather clause which exempts existing employees from the religious symbol ban was added to Bill 21 for similar reasons, in a spirit of compromise. That exemption creates inequalities among public servants, inequalities which adversaries of the law exploit in order to oppose it. In addition, the clause weakens article 4 concerning the right to secular public services. The CAQ government must reverse its decision to refuse the parents’ request for a truly secular environment for their children. This is an absolutely minimal demand. It would be even better if the grandfather clause were simply repealed (a measure which would enrage anti-secularists, but their rage is already over the top anyway). But if we have to live with that clause, then the CAQ’s refusal to apply article 4 is unacceptable.
One final and very important point: the parents’ request does not constitute a sort of “reasonable accommodation” or exception. It is simply a matter of respecting the right to secular public services as stipulated by Bill 21’s article 4, as well as respecting the freedom of conscience of pupils as stipulated by article 3 of Quebec’s Charter of human rights and freedoms.