The Book of Proverbs, chapter 14, verse 12 tells us: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.”
This week, in the Quebec National Assembly, we see the truth of that proverb most painfully illustrated. The “way” is Bill 21, the “man” is Premier Francois Legault, and the “end”—unfortunately—may very well be the death of religious freedom in La Belle Province.
For those of you who haven’t been following this story, here’s a link to a CTV News clip that aired recently: https://www.ctvnews.ca/video?clipId=1648076
In a nutshell, Bill 21 aims to prohibit the wearing of religious symbols by public sector workers in Quebec. The Coalition Avenir Quebec legislation would affect elementary and high school teachers, Crown prosecutors, police officers, prison guards, judges, and basically any other person regarded as holding a position of authority.
Premier Legault argues that his government’s secularism bill reflects the wishes of the Quebecois nation. His “Immigration, Diversity and Inclusiveness Minister” Simon Jolin-Barrette describes the proposed legislation as an affirmation of Quebec’s distinctiveness and its decades-long drive to separate church and state.
But it’s hard to believe that most Quebecers will be comfortable with the manner in which Bill 21 targets religious minorities, who will be prohibited from openly displaying their faith while working in government positions. Surely it is unreasonable (not to mention racist) to demand that an Orthodox Jew be prohibited from wearing his kippah, or a Sikh his turban. What kind of person would tear the headscarf from a Muslim woman?
What we’re talking about here are not merely optional decorations, like Star of David earrings or Winking Jesus cufflinks. No. What Bill 21 has in its sights goes to the core of a person’s identity. Not merely religious identity, but cultural identity, as well. If this legislation is in fact signed into law, it will effectively bar thousands of Quebecers from myriad professions, and limit advancement opportunities for hundreds who—while Legault promises they will be “grandfathered in” if already government employees—will be ineligible to move departments or assume other public sector positions.
In the face of criticism from civil rights groups and organizations representing religious minorities, Legault intends to invoke Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Bill 21 declares the law will have effect “notwithstanding” protections in the Charter and “despite” protections in the provincial Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.
Of course, we’ve seen this sort of thing before in the Province of Quebec. The previous Liberal government passed Bill 62 in October 2017, which required public services to be given and received with an uncovered face. That law is being challenged in court on the grounds it discriminates against women wearing the niqab or burka.
As various commentators have pointed out, visible minorities already have a harder time finding jobs in Quebec than the white francophone majority, and Bill 21 reinforces the idea that a person can be judged based on his or her appearance.
Friends, what Coalition Avenir is proposing is reprehensible. It assumes that Quebec society is truly as intolerant as its worst critics insist that it is. Let’s hope and pray Bill 21 doesn’t prove them right.
Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! (Psalm 133:1)