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Bill 21: Quebec’s Totalitarian Law Against Religious Freedom

By: Sabaahat Iqbal

Is Quebec’s Bill 21 really about neutralizing religious symbols in a workplace or is it taking away the human rights of Quebecers?

On June 16, 2019, Quebec passed Bill No. 21, which prohibits the display of religious symbols by public-sector workers in the workplace. This means; Muslim women cannot wear hijabs or niqabs, Jewish men cannot wear kippahs, Sikhs cannot wear turbans, and Christians cannot wear crosses, at work. 

This bill was the government’s fourth attempt in ten years to introduce religious neutrality to the province. Bill 21 is based on four principles:

1. the separation of state and religions,

2. religious neutrality of the state,

3. equality of all citizens, and

4. freedom of conscience and religion.

Though the government tried to put the bill in place as a positive outcome to the citizens of Quebec, many believe it violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom

Is it a Violation of the Charter?

The bill has been criticized as religious discrimination among many people in the province of Quebec and Canada as a whole. It violates Canada’s Freedom of Religion under section 2(a) in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom.

This bill not only targets religious women, but it is legislating gender discrimination against these women. Not allowing women to dress in accordance with their religious beliefs directly conflicts with the assurances of Freedom of Religion in the Charter. 

Taking Away Their Rights to Express Themselves

Religious minorities already face obstacles on a daily basis when looking for stable employment.  This bill takes away their right to express their religious beliefs. I understand the reasoning in neutralizing religious symbols in the workplaces of the provincial government, but this bill makes people choose between their religious views and their career. 

Quebecer Nour Farhat, who wears a hijab, summed up the situation: “It really shut all my doors. Five months ago, I would have told you ‘I’m a future Crown attorney.’ I was so sure of my path. And now I’m like, OK maybe I’ll become an expert in insurance law?”

Many people are considering moving out of the province and starting fresh in a place where they can freely express their religious beliefs.

Covid-19 Face Coverings vs. Religious Face Coverings

Many believe that this bill is targeting Muslim women specifically. Particularly because of the rules related to face coverings, which bars a niqab-wearing woman from accessing public services. However, this begs a bigger question: what is the difference between Covid-19 face coverings vs. religious face coverings?

With the rise of COVID, face masks are mandatory in work environments for public authorities.

Canada’s Chief Public Health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, suggested people to wear non-medical face mask to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Yet wearing a niqab, because it represents a religious symbol, is prohibited under the bill. For instance, upon arrival at a hospital, COVID-19 patients entering the emergency department are given a face mask and asked to keep it on. A woman wearing a niqab entering the emergency department, will be required by law to remove it before receiving any health-care services.

On April 9 of this year, the Supreme Court of Canada rejected an appeal filed by civil rights groups to suspend parts of Bill 21. The Premier of Quebec, François Legault praised the decision not to move forward with the appeal.  At the same time, public health persistently compels people to wear face masks for health and safety reasons. This has raised serious concerns about the arguments and motives behind Bill 21.

What’s Next?

Many people across the province are struggling to figure out what they should do next. Quebec is home to many people. It is where they grew up or came for fresh beginnings. But now, they are frustrated and confused because they have to choose between their religious practices and their career paths.