Act respecting the laicity of the State
This article may be unbalanced towards certain viewpoints. (June 2021)
An Act respecting the laicity of the State (French: Loi sur la laïcité de l'État) is a Canadian law enacted by Bill 21 and tabled by the ruling Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) on March 29, 2019. It is the first Quebec law stating that "The State of Québec is a lay State (section 1)." Since it was passed, new hires among public workers in positions of coercive authority have been banned from wearing religious symbols. It also mandates having one's face uncovered to give or receive specific public services.
Laicity of the state
The first section of the Respecting Laicity of the State asserts that Quebec is a "lay State". The laicity of the state is based on four principles:
- the equality of all citizens (French: l'égalité de tous les citoyens et citoyennes )
- the separation of State and religions
- the religious neutrality of the State
- freedom of conscience and freedom of religion
According to the second paragraph of section 4, "State laicity also requires that all persons have the right to lay parliamentary, government and judicial institutions, and to lay public services".
This article may be unbalanced towards certain viewpoints. (June 2021)
The Act (included in Bill 62, “An act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality and, in particular, to provide a framework for requests for accommodations on religious grounds in certain bodies”) made world headlines in October 2017. The bill was passed on October 18, 2017. The act banned a person whose face is covered from delivering or receiving a public service. Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée stated that people could seek religious exemption on a "case by case" basis.
The ban has worried some conservative Muslims who consider face covering a necessary part of their religion  and have defined the move as Islamophobia. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke out against it. Several scholars have also criticised the ban. The ban was challenged by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the National Council of Canadian Muslims in the Quebec Superior Court. Meanwhile, the Parti Québécois and the Coalition Avenir Québec argued the ban was not extensive enough. Some journalists accused Quebec's then-premier Philippe Couillard of supporting the ban for “perceived political advantage”. while a majority of the general public expressed their support for this move.
With regards to public opinion, an October 27 Ipsos poll found that 76% of Quebecers backed Bill 62, with 24% opposing it. The same survey found the 68% of Canadians in general supported a law similar to Bill 62 in their part of Canada. An October 27 Angus Reid Institute poll found that 70% Canadians outside of Quebec supported "legislation similar to Bill 62" where they lived in the country, with 30% opposing it.
However, a judge made the decision that the face-covering ban cannot be applicable while analysis by another court, because of irreversible injury it may cause some women of the Muslim faith. Twice since December 2017 a Quebec judge granted an injunction on that section questioned in court by the National Council of Canadian Muslims with the participation of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. In the judgment of the court, said section contravenes the freedoms guaranteed by the Quebec and the Canadian charters of human rights and freedoms.
The Quebec Liberal Party government confirmed that it would not appeal that suspension of the key article of its Religious Neutrality Act. The government of Quebec preferred to wait for a judgement on the substance and constitutionality of the law.
If the Quebec Liberal Party government had been re-elected in the general election on October 1, 2018, Premier Philippe Couillard said he would be ready to go to the Supreme Court of Canada, if necessary, to defend Bill 62. From his previous comments on the matter, Couillard was not likely to preserve the face covering ban by invoking the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Couillard stated that his government, in passing Bill 62, did not use the notwithstanding clause by design, saying that the Supreme Court would probably uphold his government’s limited ban as reasonable and justified.
As promised during the 2018 election campaign, the CAQ government tabled Bill 21 on March 28, 2019, entitled "An Act respecting the laicity of the State". The bill, since made law, bans public workers in positions of "authority" from wearing religious symbols, specifically while they are on duty. According to the text of the bill, the laicity of the state is defined by a neutral religious stance, keeping state and religious affairs apart, as well as promoting equality and freedom of conscience and religion among citizens.
Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette said all religious symbols, regardless of the size of the object, would be prohibited, but not religious tattoos or hairstyles such as Rastafarian dreadlocks. The law affects:
- Any public employee who carries a weapon, including police officers, courthouse constables, bodyguards, prison guards, and wildlife officers
- Crown prosecutors, government lawyers, and judges
- School principals, vice-principals and teachers
A grandfather clause exempts some public workers as long as they continue to hold the same job, at the same institution. The law also details rules that require people to uncover their faces to receive a public service for identification or security purposes, such as taking public transit with a reduced-fare photo ID card. However, people who have their faces covered for medical reasons or to do their jobs are exempt from these rules.
The previous Liberal government passed a similar law banning veils that cover the face, but the relevant sections remain suspended following a court challenge by civil liberties groups. Before that legislation, the Parti Québécois proposed a law banning the display of "ostentatious" religious symbols, but they were unable to pass it before losing an election some months thereafter.
Under the CAQ's legislation, the law applies when receiving government services, including:
- Municipal services such as public transit
- Doctors, dentists, and midwives in public institutions
- Subsidized daycares
- School boards
The law invokes the notwithstanding clause to avoid legal challenge based on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and amends the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms to say that "state laicity" is of "fundamental importance" to avoid lawsuits under Quebec law.
Bill 21 at third reading had a closure motion to cut off debate at the committee stage passed by the majority CAQ members of the assembly. Debate and vote were scheduled for June 16, 2019, and passed as expected.
The Bill passed on June 16 with CAQ government forcing passage of the law by a 73–35 vote, with backing of the Parti Québécois. The Quebec Liberal Party and Québec solidaire were opposed. The CAQ government also introduced last-minute amendments toughening the law, making provisions for a minister to verify that it is being obeyed and to demand corrective measures if necessary.
This article may be unbalanced towards certain viewpoints. (October 2019)
The Quebec Liberal Party said the law would go too far, particularly in respect to Muslim women, and continued to advocate a ban only on religious clothing which covered the face, such as the niqab. Québec solidaire said that it was opposed to any ban on the wearing of religious symbols. Quebec Liberal Leadership candidate, Dominique Anglade, argued that “We are all in favour of secularism, but not the way it was done with Bill 21.”
The Parti Québécois said the ban did not go far enough, and that it should have been extended to public daycare workers, as in its proposed legislation.
Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor, authors of the Bouchard-Taylor report on reasonable accommodations, raised concern that it makes the province not look like a “decent society” and will only feed an intolerance toward minorities.
Various forms of resistance to Bill 21 have emerged since its inception. Some are the legal challenges described below. The Coalition Inclusion Quebec is taking legal action on the basis that Bill 21 specifically targets Muslim women. The Coalition Inclusion Quebec is challenging the use of the notwithstanding clause because it cannot be used against Section 28 of the Charter, regarding gender discrimination. Another court case is being filed by the English Montreal School Board on the basis of violating minority language rights. Calgary city council voted unanimously to condemn Bill 21 with the Mayor of Calgary, Naheed Nenshi, urging other municipal governments to speak out against Bill 21.
Bill 21 was debated in the 2019 federal election debates. Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet stated this was a provincial matter and not relevant to the federal election but did campaign in favour of Bill 21. When explaining why being called a nationalist to Canada Press is not seen a pejorative, Joseph Yvon Thériault, a sociology professor at University of Quebec at Montreal, compared Bill 21 to stricter legislation to European countries such as France and Belgium as an argument that Quebec Nationalism is based on moderation.
The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) filed a legal challenge against the law which aims to stay its application. The groups argue that the law is unconstitutional, irreparably harms religious minorities and constitutes "state-sanctioned second class citizenship." The Quebec Court of Appeal later granted the petitioning organizations leave to appeal the claim for an injunction. The law has faced many legal challenges. There are currently four of them. A 29-day hearing into challenges to the law was heard in the Quebec Superior Court in 2020.
Quebec Superior Court judge Judge Marc-André Blanchard upheld most of the ban for public employees. Coalition Inclusion Quebec announced a challenge to the ruling at the Quebec Court of Appeal in order to strike down the entire law.
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