In 1981, while ushering in Canada’s new Charter of Rights and Freedoms, then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau remarked that “The Golden Thread of Faith is woven throughout the history of Canada from its earliest beginnings up to the present time.” Now, in Trudeau’s home province of Quebec, we are witnessing the unraveling of that thread and the prospect of its complete sundering.
On June 16, 2019, the Quebec National Assembly passed the Coalition pour l’Avenir du Québec government’s Bill 21: An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State. At ten pages, the law is brief in length, but broad and troubling in scope. It affirms that Quebec is a “lay state,” characterized by the “separation of State and religions . . . the religious neutrality of the state . . . the equality of all citizens . . . and freedom of conscience and religion.”
Based on these mutually contradictory premises, the law prohibits the wearing of religious symbols by public servants when they are exercising their functions.
Caught in this web are, among others, legislators, justices of the peace, prosecutors, peace officers, and school teachers. Even religious freedom advocates will be unlikely to quarrel with the ban on full-face and head coverings for police officers and school teachers.
But the law goes too far in suppressing all outward symbols of religious faith, including religious Sikhs who wear a turban, orthodox Jews who wear a kippah, Muslim women in hijab, and Christians who wear visible crosses. Worse, the prohibitions extend to private institutions that are under agreement with the government to provide health and social services.
The exclusive focus on religious garb is indeed troubling. One suspects the ultimate goal of the National Assembly is to use the force of law to remove religion from Quebec’s public life, a process ongoing elsewhere in Canada.
The right of public religious expression entails more than wearing religious symbols. It also means the right to operate faith-based institutions in a manner consistent with religious teachings, to refrain from participation in activities that are incompatible with religious belief, and – in a democracy of equal citizens – the right to engage in debates over law and public policy with religion-based arguments.
The logic of the law could easily be wielded to justify future restrictions on these more substantive areas of expression.
Nevertheless, the law is deeply troubling on its face, demanding that public servants in Quebec present incomplete versions of themselves when performing their duties in the public domain. Anticipating the intense opposition this law would elicit, the government of Quebec invoked section 33, the so-called “notwithstanding clause” of Canada’s Constitution Act, 1982. That clause permits Parliament – or any provincial legislature – to enact legislation notwithstanding the provisions in sections 2 and 7-15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (which includes freedom of conscience and religion) for a period of five years.
The Quebec government is seeking to do an end-run around the Charter, openly flaunting the suppression of fundamental freedoms, while baldly asserting that the secular state protects the equality of citizens and their freedom of conscience and religion.
The new law reflects anti-Muslim attitudes prevalent in rural Quebec. But ultimately it flows from a statist understanding of the role of government and from the gnostic impulses of Quebec’s secular elites. They view themselves as guardians of the knowledge of good and evil and arbiters of how the state is to be served. This amounts to a fundamental reordering of representative democracy.
The new law can also be characterized as a project of certain Québécois elites to cling to the political and cultural values of the 1960s and 1970s. During those years, French Quebec came to reject longstanding Catholic nationalism in favor of an avowedly secular progressive nationalism – Quebec’s so-called Quiet Revolution.
The Second Vatican Council unfolded during the early 1960s, but Quebec’s elites, like other Western Catholics, never understood the teachings of Dignitatis Humanæ concerning the human person and the utter necessity of religious freedom for all. Instead, the culture that emerged is an alien French laïcité – the use of the state to control and privatize religion –which historically has not been the stuff of French-Canadian society.
Indigenous First Nations, English, Scottish, Irish, Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, Lebanese, Italians, Haitians, and North Africans, among many others, have long come together in Quebec (though not without discrimination along the way). Quebec’s government has almost exclusive control over immigration to the province. It welcomes immigrants, especially Francophone immigrants, from around the world to help build French civilization in North America.
This is a laudable project. Yet the government is now telling those it has welcomed: “We want you, but not your faith. Just your cultural and economic value to the state will do.” This represents a narrow, utilitarian, and fundamentally anti-Catholic understanding of the human person.
Hence the stunning hypocrisy of the government’s claim to uphold freedom of conscience and religion in the new law. Religious freedom is the right of every person, and every religious community, to live their faith through religious observance and public action. Religious freedom is necessary for individual and social flourishing. Like all other inalienable rights, it is not a gift of the state. It should be protected and defended by the state.
So why this law? The answer is that the secular elites of la belle province do not really believe in pluralism and diversity. This new law is a gross violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It represents a significant legal step in the removal of religion from the public life of this historically Catholic province.
Legal challenges are pending, of course, and some people of faith in Quebec, along with some public institutions, such as municipalities and school boards, may decide to respond with civil disobedience. If so, will the Quebec government arrest observant Sikhs, Jews, and Muslims while they fulfill their duties as public servants? We must wait and see.