'A very important day:' CAQ tables controversial religious symbols bill
Published Wednesday, March 27, 2019 9:24PM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, March 28, 2019 8:03PM EDT
The Quebec government has tabled its long-promised and controversial religious symbols bill.
The bill, once passed, will prohibit public sector employees in position of authority from wearing religious symbols at work, but does include a provision allowing current employees in those positions to continue wearing religious symbols.
"It's a very important day today," said Legault after the bill was tabled. "What I want to try to do in the next few weeks is unite as many Quebecers as possible. That's why we accepted to make compromises. But I'm very proud of the bill we tabled today and I think it represents our values."
Legault has said he will invoke the Notwithstanding Clause to block court challenges to the bill.
Before the bill was tabled, Premier Francois Legault's administration said it will also introduce a bill calling for the removal of the National Assembly's crucifix. That motion was passed later on Thursday morning.
The National Assembly crucifix was first hung above the Speaker's chair in 1936 and the government said last October it would not remove it, calling it an important part of Quebec's heritage. Critics have said its presence undermines the government's position that religious symbols worn by employees are inconsistent with a secular state.
"What we want is to show all Quebecers that we are also ready to make compromises on the grandfather clause, on the crucifix in order to get as much support as possible," said Legault. "My goal is to really unite Quebecers."
Before the bill was tabled, the CAQ had made it clear that teachers, police officers and other public employees would be included in the bill. Bill 21, or the 'Act Respecting the Laicity of the State,' included a full list of professions subject to the prospective new law.
- Public elementary and high school teachers
- Principals and vice-principals
- Police officers
- Peace officers
- Prison guards
- Crown prosecutors
- Court agents who wear weapons
- Speaker and deputy speakers of the National Assembly
The bill also includes clauses saying public servants must be provided by employees whose faces are not covered and any Quebecer wishing to receive a public service must also have their face uncovered.
Critics denounce bill
Wafaa Mansour, a masters student at the University of Sherbrooke who is studying to be a teacher, said the bill will keep her from working in Quebec.
"I won't be able to find any job, that's on a personal level," she said. "On the bigger level, I'm worried about others like my daughter, for example. I have to tell her 'You can think about any career, but exclude this, this, this and this from your list,' which I think is unfair."
Mansour, who came to Canada from the United Kingdom 15 years ago, said wearing her headscarf is a personal choice.
"For me, it's a no-no to take it off. It's my faith, it's my belief. I came to Canada for this particular reason, because Canada protects our rights, freedom of speech and freedom of religion."
Ayesha Khan, a high school science teacher, called Bill 21 "ridiculous."
"It's legalized discrimination. I don't see the point. It's 2019, I shouldn't have to explain my position on this. It's not a point of discussion. I feel like the whole world is moving forward and here in Quebec, we're taking four steps back. There's no reason for the government to be telling me what I can and cannot wear. It's disheartening."
She noted that while she may be protected by the grandfather clause, the bill "is robbing future generations. My students should be able to pursue their career of choice. As a teacher, it's my job to help them... I don't see how I can possibly tell kids 'You can't do that because of the way you look or what you wear. It's just not fair."
Ensemble Montreal interim leader Lionel Perez, an observant Jew, said the bill would "allow us to have a clear discussion on the impact of secularism in Quebec" but that it would create two different classes in Quebec society.
"Over the last number of years, we've had different laws that have been tabled that were not as comprehensive," he said. "At least today we're going to be able to have a clear discussion on the issue at heart. Everybody is for more secularism, everybody is for more state neutrality. The question isn't whether we're for or against neutrality, but what is our vision for secularism and state neutrality in Quebec? Unfortunately, we believe the vision presented by the CAQ government goes against one that respects its citizens."
Trudeau calls discrimination "unthinkable"
On Thursday Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was unable to respond to details of the bill until he has seen the exact wording, but condemned discrimination based on religion.
"Canada and indeed Quebec are places where we are a secular society. We respect deeply people's rights and freedoms including freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion. It is unthinkable to me that in a free society we would legitimize discrimination against citizens based on their religion."
EMSB rejects religious symbols bill
The religious symbols bill has been heavily scrutinized since Legault first began promising it during last year's election campaign. On Wednesday, the English Montreal School Board passed a motion that it will not abide by the province’s proposed religious symbols ban.
“The Quebec government has stated its intent to propose legislation to prohibit the wearing of religious symbols for all persons in a position of authority, including teachers,” said EMSB chair Angela Mancini in a statement. “We believe in the secularity of the state while still supporting an individual’s right to freedom of religion.”
The EMSB has studied the issue and believes that a religious symbol worn by a teacher “in no way impacts their ability to teach and provide quality education in a secular state.”
The board also said that the proposed ban would violate paragraphs 2 (a) and 2 (b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The CAQ government will table legislation on Thursday that proposes a ban on certain public servants, including teachers, from wearing religious symbols while on the job.
- With files from The Canadian Press