Proposals to restrict the wearing of religious symbols by public employees have obtained substantial support among Quebecers. This has also been the case of the province’s “Act respecting the laicity of the State”, adopted in 2019 and commonly known as Bill 21, which forbids the wearing of religious symbols by some public sector employees, including police officers, judges as well as teachers working in the public school system. The law also includes a ‘grandfather clause’ that allows employees who were wearing religious symbols when the legislation was adopted to continue to do so, but only as long as they remain in their current employment position.
Laws restricting the wearing of religious symbols are in place in a number of European countries but are relatively unique in the North American context. As such, it is perhaps not surprising that Bill 21 has been denounced in the rest of Canada as discriminatory, xenophobic and sexist. Indeed, a range of provincial and local governments have adopted motions condemning Bill 21. Nevertheless, this act and more generally proposals aimed at restricting the wearing of religious symbols have obtained substantial support among Quebecers, significantly more so than in other Canadian provinces. What arguments have been mobilized in support or in opposition to the legislation? And why are Quebecers more likely than other Canadians to support such restrictions?
The battle over Bill 21 has recently moved to the judicial arena. Last November and December, a number of civil society organizations argued in front of a Quebec superior court judge that the Bill was unconstitutional. The legal debate has largely focused on whether the invocation in the legislation of section 33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, commonly known as the notwithstanding clause, shields the legislation from legal challenges. This clause allows the Canadian Parliament or the legislature of a province to declare that an Act that they have adopted should operate even if it might infringe on some rights guaranteed by the Charter, for example section 2A that guarantees freedom of religion or section 15 on equality rights which prohibits discrimination, including based on religion.
While the use of section 33 might protect the legislation from constitutional challenges, opponents of the Bill have argued that it disproportionately impacts Muslim women and as such violates section 28 of the Charter, which is not covered by the notwithstanding clause (the notwithstanding clause can be used in regard to section 2 and sections 7 to 15).
Section 28 stipulates that the rights and freedoms in the Charter are guaranteed equally to men and women. Groups representing the Quebec anglophone minority have also argued that Bill 21 violates section 23 of the Charter granting linguistic minorities in each province control over their educational system, since it restricts the ability of Anglophone school boards to hire employees who wear religious symbols. Defenders of the legislation have argued that it does not restrict Section 28 as it applies to both men and women equally. They have also claimed that the legislation, rather than limiting freedom of religion, was in fact protecting the freedom of conscience of children and parents as the wearing of a religious symbol conveys religious values that the latter might oppose.
Beyond the arguments mobilized in favour or against Bill 21 during this recent court challenge, what accounts for Quebecers’ greater support for legislative proposals to restrict the wearing of religious symbols by public employees? In a study conducted with our colleagues Stephen White at Carleton University and Ailsa Henderson at the University of Edinburgh drawing on a survey we administered in 2014, we observed that support for restrictions to the wearing of religious symbols in Quebec was the product of an alliance between groups of strange bedfellows.