Many folks in English Canada are wrong in their criticism of Quebec’s Bill 21, the law which promotes secularism. This progressive bill should be celebrated, not condemned.
Key Supreme Court Ruling on Religious Neutrality of the State
Importantly, Quebec’s Bill 21 complies with the unanimous 2015 ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada which established the principle that the state has a duty of neutrality in religious matters. This seminal case involved the City of Saguenay, Quebec whose city council was praying to the Christian god and displaying Christian iconography. The Supreme Court stated the city’s religious practices violated the state’s duty of neutrality. It is worth noting that the Saguenay decision was penned, to his credit, by Justice Clement Gascon, a Roman Catholic.
With Bill 21 the Quebec provincial government makes a laudable effort to comply with its constitutional duty of neutrality, and in a balanced and measured way. The bill doesn’t ban all provincial & municipal civil servants from indulging in religious practices at work, just those employees in positions of authority dealing directly with the public, less than 5 % of the workforce. The other 95 % of backroom bureaucrats and paper shufflers are free to display religious symbols on the job.
Positions of Authority
This is an important qualifier, as these are the people at the pointy end of the ship-of-state’s power and influence over its citizenry who are by law now owed a constitutional duty of neutrality.
The latest kerfuffle in the application of Bill 21 is over a part-time Chelsea, Quebec public school teacher who was transferred to admin work because she insisted on wearing Islamic head-dress while teaching. Critics wrongly complain this is unlawful discrimination. Not so. Bill 21 applies to all religions equally. So, a teacher donning a nun’s habit would be offside too.
It is not a small matter to reflect on just how much religious freedom this Chelsea teacher and all Canadian citizens enjoy. The religiously inclined can legally build their spirit houses, publish their holy books & pamphlets, run websites & blogs, organize lobby groups, proselytize door-to door and on street corners, be hermits on mountain tops, operate radio stations, broadcast TV shows, stage peaceful protests, obtain charitable tax-status, benefit from property tax breaks and, most notably, live free from persecution or outright prohibition at the hands of the state, including state violence. Some decades ago, admittedly, we did ban the Doukhobors in BC from protesting in the nude but that was just a “public decency” issue. Times change.
How many other countries are this tolerant and make more accommodations for religions? Very few. To paraphrase Trudeau pere, the church has no place in the parliaments of the nation. And vice versa.
Quebec IS a Canadian leader
In its commitment to state neutrality Quebec earlier sought and received federal agreement to amend Canada’s constitution to remove the provision for Catholic and Protestant public schools. Thankfully, public schools today in Quebec are either French or English. As a nod to our Newfie brothers & sisters (and my secularist dad from the Burin peninsula) we should also recognize Newfoundland’s accomplishment of ending denominational public schools.
Sanctimonious critics from Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta who complain, hypocritically, about Quebec’s secular laws should have red faces. These provinces are in breach of their duty of neutrality by continuing to fund Catholic schools separately from public schools. Mighty Ontario further dodges the Supreme Court by turning a blind eye to some of its municipal councils who engage in Christian prayer and to some school boards who permit Islamic prayer sessions in public schools. These scofflaw provinces flout the Supreme Court of Canada and shirk their duty of neutrality, thereby undermining the rule of law.
Government a Religion-Free Zone
Complainers over secularism laws need to absorb a key value about the character of the modern, democratic state – separation of church and state. Mankind’s history of religious strife and religious abuses is a shocking vale of tears. And around the world today the parties of God with state power still bring misery. In the West we have moved fairly successfully to separate church from state. Yet there remains more to do. Secularists believe that religious faith is a matter of private conscience which the faithful are free to pursue outside state-related functions. With Bill 21 Quebec bravely continues the secular Enlightenment project. As a bonus they are following the Supreme Court’s duty of neutrality. Well done, Quebec. Keep going! Amen.