- - Wednesday, June 12, 2019

TORONTO — Devout Sikhs, practicing Muslims, Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians working in Quebec’s public service will soon face a choice: Either honor their religious convictions or keep their jobs.

Lawmakers in Quebec’s provincial assembly are set to vote by the end of the week on a divisive measure that would ban public employees from wearing any symbol of their religion on the job, an echo of the “burqa bans” adopted by a number of European countries in recent years.

“Secularism is not contrary to freedom of religion,” Quebec Premier Francois Legault said of his government’s proposed law. For the past 10 years, Quebecois have been debating the limits of religious accommodation in the public service and now “it’s time to set the rules,” he said in a public address to the province.

The issues of secularism and religion’s role in the public square have provoked fierce debate in Quebec and other Canadian provinces and could even play a role in national elections this fall.

When the bill was introduced, Liberal Party Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it was “unthinkable” that “in a free society we would legitimize discrimination against citizens based on their religion,” but polls show strong majorities across Canada support what proponents call “religious neutrality” statutes.

Mr. Legault’s Coalition for Quebec’s Future party won its first election in October with a promise that the province’s police, prosecutors, judges, police guards and public school teachers will be banned from wearing Sikh turbans, Islamic hijabs, Jewish kippas or Christian crosses while performing their public duty.

Bill 21 would not affect current employees, but all new positions and new hires would have to conform to the standards.

About 84% of Quebec’s 6 million people are Roman Catholic, compared with just 1.5% Muslim and 1.24% Jewish.

Marc-Andre Gosselin, spokesman for Quebec’s Ministry of Immigration, Diversity and Inclusion, defended the need for the bill.

“We believe that these very specific functions need to be completely neutral in order to ensure a neutral service from the state …,” Mr. Gosselin said in an email response to The Washington Times. “We are not targeting one religion: all the religions are equal and on the same level.”

Quebec polls also show more than 60% of voters back the bill. Respondents have expressed concern that their cultural identity is being undermined by the growing presence of Islamic immigrants from French-speaking countries in Africa and Asia.

Fareed Khan, a Quebec-based communications professional, called the proposed law anti-religious and an example of “radical atheism, shrouded in the language of extremist secularism.”

Quebec’s minister responsible for the status of women all but confirmed this when she attacked the hijab headscarf worn by some Muslim woman as a symbol of religious oppression that “doesn’t meet my values.”

Anticipating challenges that it violates the Canadian Constitution and Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, writers of the bill included a constitutional maneuver that insulates it from court challenges for five years.

Crosses coming down

Officials of school boards and the Montreal City Council have opposed the law, although Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante has said the city will enforce the prohibition if it becomes law. Mr. Legault insists the bill is in line with Quebec’s history of separating religion and state that began in the 1960s when the Roman Catholic Church lost its near monopoly on providing education, health and welfare services in the province.

To comply with the proposed law, Mr. Legault’s government has agreed to remove the Catholic crucifix that has been hanging on the wall of its province’s legislature since 1936 and ordered local courts to remove crucifixes. The Montreal City Council, though opposed to Bill 21, has followed suit and voted to remove its historic crucifix.

Critics say the proposed law does not define “religious symbol” or detail which agency will investigate and rule on whether earrings in the shape of a cross are a religious symbol or a fashion accessory, or whether a yin-yang tattoo is an illegal display of Taoism.

In response to the criticisms, Quebec Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette this week offered an amendment saying the bill was aimed specifically at “any article of clothing, accessory, headgear or jewelry that is worn as a show of faith or religious conviction” and “is reasonably considered as referring to a religious affiliation.”

But those distinctions are not the main target of the law. A May poll of over 1,200 Quebecois conducted on behalf of the Association for Canadian Studies found that the majority of Quebecois who support the bill are motivated primarily by negative feelings toward Muslims and Jews.

More than 50% of respondents said it was acceptable for public school teachers to wear Christian crucifixes or crosses, but only 30% agreed it was acceptable for a public school teacher to wear a Jewish skullcap and only 12% would let a female teacher wear an Islamic headscarf.

According to a poll commissioned by the government, 63% of Quebecois agreed that crosses and other Christian symbols that adorn public institutions should remain in place because they are “part of the heritage of Quebec.”

Jack Jedwab, president of the Association for Canadian Studies, said that despite the many outward signs of Christianity, Quebec is “one of the least religious places in North America.”

In all of Quebec, he said, fewer than 10 public school teachers wear the hajib and no police officers do so. Although Canada’s defense minister is a devout Sikh who wears a turban and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and most urban forces allow religious garments, Ms. Plante made headlines last year when she suggested that her city’s police think about allowing their members to wear turbans and hijabs while on duty.

But among Quebec’s French-speaking Catholic majority, support for independence from Canada has settled into a form of nationalism that seeks more independence within Canada, said Francois Bergeron, publisher of L’Express, a French-language newspaper based in Toronto.

“This law shows who were are in Quebec, thank you very much,” he said. “This ends the debate that was a waste of time. There’s no coming back after this.”

Attacks on Muslims

Some fear the display of Quebec nationalism has coincided with a rising number of attacks on Muslims. Quebec City Police Chief Robert Pigeon said the number of hate crimes against Muslims in his city doubled in 2017. As Bill 21 was being debated, a man was arrested for harassing and insulting worshippers at a Quebec City mosque where two years ago an anti-Muslim extremist gunned down six people.

No one objects to the public money Montreal spends on the 103-foot-high cross on Mount Royal that traditionally glows purple when the Vatican chooses a new pope. But a clash between a group of Orthodox Jews and a Montreal YMCA more than a decade ago galvanized the religious accommodation issue for many Quebecois.

In 2006, the head of a congregation of devout Hasidic Jews said his male students were being distracted from their religious studies by the sight of women exercising in the neighboring branch of the YMCA. The congregation’s rabbi asked the YMCA to replace their clear windows with frosted ones and even offered to pay for the installation.

The controversy exploded into a public battle between ordinary Quebecois and demands from a religious “ghetto,” and the topic of “reasonable accommodation” of minorities was a hot political issue in the 2007 provincial election. Although the YMCA did install opaque windows, it has since replaced them with clear glass.

Mr. Gosselin strongly denied any link between the push for the religious symbol ban and violence against religious minorities, insisting the provincial government “strongly denounces every intolerant act or speech.”

“There is no link between debate on secularism and hate crimes,” he insisted. “Quebec is a very open and one of the most welcoming nations. It will remain as it was.”

But Mr. Trudeau, opposition Conservative leader Andrew Scheer and Jagmeet Singh, leader of the New Democratic Party, have spoken out against the bill. But Mr. Singh, a turban-wearing Sikh, has spoken of his “hurt” personal feelings that despite his accomplishments and contributions to the country, he can run for prime minister in Ottawa but may soon be blocked from becoming a teacher or police officer in Quebec.

Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, director of the equality program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said the law has no clearly defined goal or social problem it is meant to solve and thus may be vulnerable to a legal challenge.

This proposed law is “a non-solution in search of a non-problem,” she said.

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