Quebec Proposes Bill Banning Public Employees From Wearing Head Scarves at Work
MONTREAL — The Quebec government on Thursday proposed a bill banning public schoolteachers, judges, police officers and other public employees from wearing religious symbols including Muslim headscarves while working, a move that could aggravate simmering cultural tensions in the province.
The Quebec premier, François Legault, has said the bill, which also applies to Catholic crosses, Jewish skull caps and Sikh turbans, was necessary to preserve Quebec’s secular values and identity. It is expected to pass in the Quebec legislature where his right-leaning party has a majority.
Religious and human rights advocates immediately attacked the legislation as a breach of religious freedom. Some said it conflicts with the image Canada has projected as an open, multicultural society.
“Every young person who aspires to a be a judge, a teacher or a police officer and wears a head scarf will think that they have no future in this province and it will push Muslims away from Quebec,” said Shahad Salman, a young lawyer who wears a head scarf and whose parents emigrated to Montreal from Iraq in the 1980s.
“This will create two classes of citizens and does not reflect the Quebec and Canada that my parents chose for their children,” she said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada also criticized the bill. Speaking in Halifax, Nova Scotia, he said that while Canada and Quebec were secular societies, it was unthinkable for him “that in a free society, we would legitimize discrimination of citizens based on their religion.”
The bill underlines how Canadians are not immune to the populism and concerns about immigration that have affected the United States, France, Britain and other Western countries.
France has banned Muslim head scarves and other conspicuous religious symbols at state schools. Denmark has barred judges from wearing head scarves, crucifixes, Jewish skull caps and turbans in courtrooms.
Legal critics have criticized the Quebec bill because, in order to insulate it from potential legal challenges, the government has chosen to invoke a rarely used constitutional loophole known as the “notwithstanding clause,” which enables Canadian legislatures to override some constitutional rights like freedom of religion or freedom of expression.
The clause was added to Canada’s 1982 constitution to appease some provinces, which were resistant to including a charter of rights as part of the document.
Under the Quebec bill, the restrictions on public-sector employees also would apply to prosecutors, prison guards and school principals. Significantly, the bill exempts current teachers, to get more support for the legislation.
Other Quebec governments have sought to enshrine secularism in the province. The previous Liberal government tried to ban those who wear face coverings from receiving public services, only to have that restriction suspended by a judge on the grounds that it impinged upon freedom of religion.
Still, the newly proposed ban provoked more criticism because invoking the “notwithstanding clause” appeared calculated to protect it from legal challenge.
“This proposed law is chilling,” said Gregory Bordan, a leading Canadian constitutional lawyer, who wears a skullcap. He noted that under the bill, he could not be a state prosecutor or represent the state before a court.
“The Quebec government is effectively giving the politicians the final word on what is legal when it comes to human rights,” he continued, “and insulating legislation from judicial oversight by preventing it from being reviewed by the courts.”
Sociologists said the legislation partly reflected the sensitivity of Quebec, a French-speaking province surrounded by English-speaking North America, to preserving its culture and language.
Mr. Legault’s government was elected at the end of last year in a populist campaign that emphasized, among other things, limiting immigration and testing immigrants to ensure they espouse Quebec’s values as a prerequisite to settling permanently in the province.
Gérard Bouchard, an eminent historian and sociologist who helped lead an influential commission examining how to integrate minority cultures into Quebec society, said the province’s insecurity about its own identity was bound up in the legislation, which appeared calculated to tap into public unease about Islam.
“An insecure majority is not the ideal bedfellow for minorities,” he said.
He noted that the backlash against accommodating ethnic minorities also showed the deep distrust of religion in Quebec, the outgrowth of a period in the 1960s known as the Quiet Revolution, when Quebecers revolted against the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church, including pressuring women to have babies.
Such is the visceral resistance to religion in Quebec that hundreds of empty churches have been repurposed for other uses, including as fitness centers, cheese emporiums and upmarket condominiums.
Supporters of the bill say it is necessary to safeguard Quebec from encroaching religious orthodoxy that threatens to challenge the province’s secular liberal values including respect for women and homosexuals.
In an apparent effort to show its commitment to secularism, Mr. Legault’s government pledged on Thursday to move a crucifix from the national assembly’s main chamber to another area in the building.
“When a religion dictates clothing or something, for me, this is not freedom of choice,” she told reporters. “My values are that a woman should be free to wear what she wants to wear or not wear.”
Muslim community leaders said the proposed ban was especially hurtful after the attack two years ago at a Quebec City mosque, when Alexandre Bissonnette, a student consumed by what he perceived as the threat of Muslims, killed six people and wounded more than a dozen.
Mohamed Labidi, who was president of the mosque at the time of the attack, said the proposed law would fan hate in an atmosphere of growing Islamophobia, in Quebec and beyond.
“The timing is very unfortunate given what happened at the mosques in Quebec and New Zealand,” he said, referring to the March 15 attack at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, which killed at least 50 people.
“This proposal will marginalize Muslim women in the workplace and goes against freedom of religion in both Canada and Quebec,” he said.
Many teachers also railed against the bill.
One of the biggest teachers’ unions in Quebec has filed a legal challenge against the Quebec government over its efforts to press public schools to reveal how many of their teachers wear religious symbols, saying that such a request breached Quebec’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which safeguards human rights.
After the Christchurch attack, a senior policewoman in the country donned a head scarf to show solidarity with Muslims. Anthony Housefather, a Liberal member of Parliament from Montreal, said that under the Quebec bill, such a gesture would be illegal.