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.
In Quebec, holding socially liberal values is associated with greater support for restrictions to the wearing of religious symbols
The first group consists of Quebecers holding prejudicial attitudes toward ethnocultural minorities and perceiving immigrants as a potential threat to Quebec culture. In sharp contrast, however, the second group of supporters consists of Quebecers holding socially liberal values regarding the rights of women and members of the LGBTIQ+ communities, but who do not perceive immigrants as a threat to Quebec culture and do not hold prejudicial views toward ethnocultural minorities.
In another study, we observed that greater support for restrictions to the wearing of religious symbols in Quebec than in the rest of Canada was not the result of greater feelings of cultural insecurity, more negative perceptions of immigration or greater ethnic prejudice. In effect, Quebecers and other Canadians expressed very similar views on these matters. We rather observed that it is the distinctive (and opposite) impact of socially liberal values in Quebec and the rest of Canada that explains the difference in levels of support for restrictions to the wearing of minority religious symbols by public employees.
In short, in Quebec, holding socially liberal values is associated with greater support for restrictions to the wearing of religious symbols while such values are associated with lower support in the rest of the country.
Such findings are consistent with the argument that liberalism comes in different forms and as such has potentially distinct impacts. Quebec has seen the growing importance in the public sphere of enlightenment liberalism, possibly as a result of the French influence, which asserts that the state should actively promote liberal values, including state neutrality and gender equality. In the rest of the country, a variant of reformation liberalism, which Triadafilos Triadafilopoulos has called “liberal multiculturalism” and which promotes the accommodation of cultural and religious practices that might differ from those of the majority, has become the dominant form of liberalism.
Notwithstanding the forthcoming decision of Justice Marc-André Blanchard, experts believe that his ruling on Bill 21 is likely to be appealed and eventually end up at the Supreme Court of Canada. More broadly, debates about the wearing of religious symbols by public employees are unlikely to end in Quebec in the near future. Some groups argue that restrictions to the wearing of religious symbols should be extended to early childhood educators working in Quebec’s highly subsidized child care sector. And with the decline of the traditional political cleavage between proponents and opponents of Quebec independence, the province has seen a growing politicization of immigration and ethnocultural diversity.
Finally, the notwithstanding clause is valid for a five-year period, which means that even if the Act survives a judicial contestation, it is likely that a debate will unfold in 2024 on whether the clause should be renewed again. In short, while the Quebec government of François Legault has argued that Bill 21 would close a debate that has polarized Quebec for almost 15 years, such end is not in sight.