New law bans religious symbols

Quebec’s bishops fear a new law banning religious symbols in the public sector will ‘nourish fear and intolerance’ rather than contribute to social peace.

The new law (formerly known as Bill 21) prohibits some government employees, including public school teachers, state lawyers, judges and police officers from wearing religious symbols or clothing.

However, the religious symbol prohibitions will apply only to people employed after the law was passed. Established employees will be able to wear religious symbols while they keep their current jobs.

It also includes a notwithstanding clause overriding some parts of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, mainly those about religious liberties. This clause shields it from too many legal challenges.

Some last-minute amendments concerning surveillance provisions have made the law more stringent than anticipated.

Quebec’s government says it wants to strengthen separation of the state and religions, religious neutrality of the state, equality of all citizens and freedom of conscience and religion.

Most religious groups — including Christians and Muslims — were not invited to participate in the hearings about Bill 21 when it was being debated at a National Assembly commission in May.

While Catholic bishops have said they agree with the idea of promoting a secular state, they have also said they are concerned the law should not be at the expense of fundamental religious rights.

“We believe that it’s better to fight prejudices and fear in a rational way, by educating people about the diversity of religious, spiritual and cultural experiences and traditions, rather than by prohibitions,” they said before Bill 21 was passed into law.

Canada’s National Council of Canadian Muslims says it will legally challenge the new law.

“Late last night the Quebec government legalised discrimination on the basis of religion,” the National Council says. It calls the last-minute amendments about the surveillance provisions of workplaces “deeply troubling.”

“This creates a second-class citizenship,” a National Council spokesman says. The Council will seek a court injunction to block the law that the spokesman calls “a recipe for the politics of fear.”

Quebec Premier Francois Legault says Quebecers have been expecting such a law “for a long time” and that they clearly want to prohibit religious symbols for “people with (state) authority.”

Opposition leader Pierre Arcand says said this new “botched” law “removes” rights for people.

“Waking up with fewer rights for people that I love in a place that I love,” a Montreal rabbi says. “It’s worse than we had expected. There will be lots of legal challenges.”


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