If passed into law, Quebec’s Bill 21 will make it illegal for many public servants to wear a religious symbol while carrying out their job responsibilities.  

The Bill applies to a wide range of public and governmental functions: a justice of the peace, clerk, sheriff, bankruptcy registrar, labour arbitrator, peace officer, criminal prosecutor, principal, teacher, or a lawyer or notary acting for a government body, to name but a few.

If Bill 21 only prohibited face coverings in some contexts, it could be justified by security concerns, and by long-standing Western Judeo-Christian cultural traditions in Quebec and the rest of Canada.

While Bill 21 does prohibit covering one’s face in some contexts, it goes much further. Bill 21 prohibits practicing Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and members of other faiths from wearing any religious symbol while providing government services to the public. 

Bill 21 includes a “grandfather” clause to save religious Quebecers in the public service from immediately losing their jobs upon the law coming into force, but this is disingenuous. Bill 21 makes it clear that religious observant citizens who are not already employed as policemen and teachers should not apply for such positions in future.

Quebec’s government justifies Bill 21 on the basis on four principles: (1) the separation of State and religions; (2) the religious neutrality of the State; (3) the equality of all citizens; and (4) freedom of conscience and religion.  While these four principles are indeed a central component of a free society, none of them support Bill 21. 

The “separation of State and religions” is in no way violated by an Orthodox Jew wearing a kippa, or by a Muslim wearing a kufi, or by a Sikh wearing a turban, while providing a government service. 

Civil servants do not lose their religious freedom, or their freedom of expression, when carrying out government functions.  The separation of church and state means simply that the government must refrain from imposing, or requiring adherence to, a particular worldview, ideology or belief system.

Similarly, “the religious neutrality of the State” is severely undermined by a law that imposes atheist metaphysical beliefs on people by prohibiting them from wearing religious garb that might express disagreement with atheism or secularism. The principle of state neutrality applies to the government as a whole, not to each and every teacher, clerk, policeman, etc.

Most atheists assert that atheism is not a religion.  Depending on how “religion” is defined, this may well be true. But there is no getting away from the fact that atheism, secularism, materialism and other isms are belief systems. 

Like religions, these belief systems are based on unprovable assumptions about the nature, meaning and purpose of human life.  In a free country, state neutrality means that the government has no business promoting or imposing any belief system or worldview on citizens, be it atheism, Christianity, secularism or Islam.

As for “the equality of all citizens,” Bill 21 effectively concludes that those who belong to a religion that requires them to wear a head covering (for example, Orthodox Jewish men wear a kippa) are less equal than those who belong to a religion (Catholicism, for example) that has no such requirement. 

Under Bill 21, Quebec’s Catholics and atheists have no jobs closed to them, whereas Orthodox Jews and others need not apply for many government positions.  That’s not equality.

As for freedom of conscience and religion, Bill 21 squarely tramples this freedom into the ground.

That’s zero for four.  None of the principles cited to justify Bill 21 support the legislation.

If the man renewing my driver’s licence wears a turban, it does not impose his religion on me. 

All that is “imposed” on me is the knowledge that the civil servant in front of me might adhere to a particular religious faith. I am not required to agree with, or approve of, that religion. Nor is the government promoting or endorsing a faith because one of its paid employees personally expresses adherence to that faith by honouring a particular dress code.

Banning face coverings in some contexts can be justified by the desire of Quebec – and any other society – to preserve its Western civilization, heritage and culture. 

Freedom is crucial to that tradition, and our freedoms are not a suicide pact. Preserving our free and democratic society means that freedom of conscience should not extend to the extreme of tolerating public nudity, or to the radically opposite extreme of tolerating the covering of one’s face when exercising a public duty; for example, swearing the oath of citizenship.

But Bill 21 panders to a hypersensitivity presupposing that atheists, as well as others who do not adhere to any religion, are so thin-skinned that they just can’t handle knowing that a teacher, civil servant or policeman belongs to a religious faith.  

Among atheists and other secularists, only very few of them are that intolerant. Those who are that fragile need to learn to respect and accept the fact that many Canadians do practice a religious faith, and that merely wearing a symbol of that faith does not impose it on others.

Lawyer John Carpay is president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF.ca).