Amici Curiae: Quebec says “Yes” to Religious Equality but “No” to Kippahs, Hijabs, and Turbans with its Proposed Charter of Values

On September 10 2013, the Parti Quebecois released the details of their newly proposed Charter of Values.  Under this proposed charter, Quebec’s public employees, including doctors, judges, and day care providers, will not be allowed to wear overt religious symbols in the workplace.

Bernard Drainville, the Quebec minister for Democratic Institutions and Active Citizenship, in a press conference held on Tuesday afternoon, listed the five proposals this Charter of Values would include. They are:

  1. Amend the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms
  2. Establish a duty of neutrality and reserve for all state personnel
  3. Limit the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols
  4. Make it mandatory to have one’s face uncovered when providing or receiving a state service
  5. Establish an implementation policy for state organizations

The purpose of this Charter, according to the Parti Quebecois, is to promote a neutral and secular state. Having clear rules regulating public officials’ appearance should increase social cohesion, prevent religious tension, and promote the integration of new comers into the province.  Further to the goal of a neutral state, the Parti Quebecois proposes that public employees also appear neutral.  This means government workers cannot wear a hijab, a kippah, a turban, or any overt religious symbol while on the job. What can officials wear? A graphic on the government’s website illustrates small crosses, stud earrings, and dainty rings as all being suitable for the workplace.

Undoubtedly, the separation of church and state is a cornerstone of any true liberal democracy.  However, the Parti Quebecois’ definition of state neutrality may not coincide with that of the Supreme Court of Canada.  In fact, in a recent Supreme Court decision, S.L. v. Commission scolaire des Chênes, Justice Deschamps writes, “state neutrality is assured when the state neither favours nor hinders any particular religious belief …while taking into account the competing constitutional rights of the individuals affected” (para 32).  Further, the Parti Quebecois’s implementation of “state neutrality”, i.e., banning public workers from wearing religious symbols, does not seem to be in keeping with Canadian values. Chief Justice McLachlin, in R v NS, articulates the importance of religious freedom to our Canadian heritage: “the need to accommodate and balance sincerely held religious beliefs against other interest is deeply entrenched in Canadian law. For over half a century this tradition has served us well. To depart from it would set to the law down a new road, with unknown twists and turns” (para 54).

Although the Charter of Values does not single out any one religious symbol as being unacceptable, it seems clear that the detrimental effect of this rule will be great for those in the Muslim and Sikh faiths, whose religious symbols are overt in nature. In addition, symbols of the Roman Catholic religion are plentiful in Quebec – in the Blue Room of the legislature, atop the Mount Royal, and even on its flag.  In making such dramatic movements towards a secular state, it seems logical that these symbols would also be banned.  However, when asked whether crucifixes will be removed from public institutions, Drainville answered: “the crucifix is here to stay in the name of history, in the name of our heritage.” Jamie Cameron, in an interview with The Globe and Mail, comments, “the [Charter of Values] privileges the Christian and Catholic heritage at the expense of the visible symbols of Quebec’s religious demographic today … [B]anning some religious symbols from the public sphere but saving others is nativisim, and using the law to ban symbols of faith is an insidious form of statism”.

What do you think about the Quebec Charter of Values? Join the debate by following @TheCourtDotCa on Twitter and using the hashtag #QuebecCharter

To learn more about the Quebec Charter of Rights, visit the website the Quebec Government has created promoting this Charter.


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