Quebec restricts religious expression

Hundreds of Muslim women in the Canadian province of Quebec must now remove their veils and go uncovered as they use civilly maintained services after the controversial passage of a new bill by Quebec’s government.

Oct. 18 saw the passage of Bill 62, or, by its full name, “an act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality and, in particular, to provide a framework for requests for accommodations on religious grounds in certain bodies.” This bill restricts overt expression of religious preference either by citizens using public services, such as buses or trains.

The language of the bill said that “Personnel members of public bodies and of certain other bodies must exercise their functions with their face uncovered.” The bill does make exceptions for jobs that require face coverings, such as construction dust masks, but restrictions are still set against citizens who wear  the nib, as the bill said, finally that, “persons receiving services from such [civil] personnel members must have their face uncovered.”

The bill stated that these measures must be taken to maintain both the security and the religious neutrality of the state. The aim, so says the bill, is to refuse both preference and prejudice toward or against any one religion.

Rev. Jean-Daniel Williams, a chaplain at Montreal’s McGill University, said this bill is part of Quebec’s attempts to find its own lines between religion and the state. “Religious freedom, to us, is not the American style of separation of church and state, and much of this current debate is rooted on trying to figure out how to move toward that.” Williams said.

“On all sides of these political debates, everybody kind of sees themselves as trying to develop a secular, religious freedom state. That’s the goal of everyone.” Williams said.

While Bill 62 only passed recently, it has been the neither the first nor the most extreme attempt by Quebec’s government to move towards tighter rules regarding religious expression. In 2013, another bill, known to Quebecois at large as the “charter of values,” was introduced by Quebec’s nationalist Parti Québécois, and intended much stricter restrictions on expressions of belief.

According to Williams, the charter “sought to prohibit any ostentatious signs of religions amongst public employees, meaning that anybody working in the government should not be outwardly religious in any form.”

“No hijab, no yarmulke, no big cross necklace, etcetera, and this was rather widely denounced, and may have been why that party lost power.” Williams said.

While Quebec’s history is steeped in Catholicism, Quebec today is diverse enough to have citizens who are followers of most of the world’s major religions, hence Quebec’s intention toward neutrality. Nonetheless, one of these citizens, Salam Elmenyawi, said the passage of Bill 62 only encourages discrimination.

Elmenyawi, the president of the Muslim Council of Montreal, said that Quebec’s passage of this bill is only another step in Quebec’s progression toward entirely state sponsored secularism. In reference to Bill 62’s passage on facial coverings, Elmenyawi said, “Quebec has been trying to do this since 2007 when they started with criticism of religious accommodation, which is a constitutional right.”

“It’s equality, and as a right, freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, and freedom of exhibition, and it was something that specifically was for the nation of Quebec, which is trying to find its identity in North America.” Elmenyawi said.

The language of this most recent bill, however, does not target religious wear in general, but facial coverings in particular, which is a practice nearly exclusive to Islamic women, an observation that has not escaped Elmenyawi. Elmenyawi also said that while this bill broadcasts an unwelcome attitude towards the Muslim community, its passage could mean greater difficulty in religious expression for all people of faith within the Quebec community.