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BCCLA opposes Quebec proposal to ban religious symbols

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association is announcing its opposition to the Quebec government’s proposal to create a “values charter” that would ban public sector workers from wearing many kinds of religious symbols, prohibit anyone providing or receiving a public service from covering their face, and restrict religious accommodation in Quebec human right law. While not yet drafted as legislation, the details of the proposal make clear that the government intends to allow public sector workers to wear only inconspicuous religious symbols, like a small crucifix or Star of David, but to ban outright wearing a hijab, turban, kippa or large crucifix.

Lindsay Lyster, President of the BCCLA said, “The Quebec government argues that its proposal is for ‘religious neutrality’, but it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be committed to secularism. Secularism does not mean no or minimal evidence of religion. Secularism means respect for the dignity of individuals to develop their own views free from direction from the state on religion or non-religion. Individuals must be free both to hold their own religious views and to express those views and the attempt to prohibit the expression of religious belief is a fundamental assault on individuals’ rights.”

Legal experts have expressed doubt that the proposed “values charter” would be found constitutional if legally challenged.

“We share the view that the proposed ban on religious symbols and face veils flies in the face of Charter rights and the values of inclusion and tolerance. As then-Mr. Justice Dickson wrote in the Supreme Court of Canada decision in R. v. Big M Drug Mart Ltd: “A truly free society is one which can accommodate a wide variety of beliefs, diversity of tastes and pursuits, customs and codes of conduct.” We urge the government of Quebec to respect religious freedom and abandon its misguided proposal.”

“The selective nature of the proposal also flies in the face of its supposed basis in state neutrality with respect to religion. The Quebec government proposes allowing some public religious symbols to remain, like the crucifix in the National Assembly. The outright ban on religious head-coverings, while permitting the wearing of small religious symbols like crucifixes and Stars of David, will have a differential effect on Canadians from minority religious faiths, especially Muslim women, who will thereby be excluded from taking their rightful place in the public square,” said Lyster.