Quebec ban on religious symbols

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The Quebec ban on religious symbols was enacted by Bill 21, "An Act respecting the laicity of the State" (French: Loi sur la laïcité de l'État), which was 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[edit]

The first section of the Act Respecting Laicity of the State asserts that Quebec is a "lay State". The laicity of the state is based on four principles (section 2):

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".[1]


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.[2]

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.[3]

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[4]

The law invokes the Notwithstanding clause[5] to avoid legal challenge based on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,[6] 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.[4]


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 17 with CAQ government forcing passage of the law by a 73–35 vote, with backing of the Parti Québécois, and the Liberals and Quebec 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.[7][8]


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.[9] 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.”[10]

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.[5]

Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor, authors of the Bouchard-Taylor report on reasonable accommodations raised concerns that doesn’t make the province look like a “decent society” and will only feed an intolerance toward minorities.[11][12]

Various forms of resistance to Bill 21 have emerged since its inception. 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."[13] The Quebec Court of Appeal later granted the petitioning organizations leave to appeal the claim for an injunction.[14] The Coalition Inclusion Quebec is taking legal action on the basis that Bill 21 specifically targets Muslim women.[15] 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.[16] 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.[17]

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. [18]

The law has faced many legal challenges.[19] There are currently four of them. Among those four, three of them will be heard on the same date.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Chapter L-0.3 : An Act respecting the laicity of the State - LégisQuébec". Retrieved October 16, 2019.
  2. ^ "Bill n°21 : An Act respecting the laicity of the State - National Assembly of Québec". Retrieved April 5, 2019.
  3. ^ "Bill n° 21: An Act respecting the laicity of the State - National Assembly of Québec". Retrieved April 5, 2019.
  4. ^ a b "What's in Quebec's secularism bill: Religious symbols, uncovered faces and a charter workaround | CBC News".
  5. ^ a b "Quebec government's proposed secularism law would ban public workers from wearing religious symbols | CBC News".
  6. ^ "Quebec's bill to ban religious symbols sparks condemnation in province and Ottawa" – via The Globe and Mail.
  7. ^ "Quebec passes bill banning public servants from wearing religious symbols" – via The Globe and Mail.
  8. ^ "Quebec bans religious symbols for state workers in new law". Global News.
  9. ^ "Signes religieux : les membres de Québec solidaire votent pour la totale liberté".
  10. ^ Authier, Philip (November 22, 2019). "No notwithstanding clause for Bill 21 under my watch: Anglade". Montreal Gazette. Retrieved November 24, 2019.
  11. ^ Authier, Philip (May 9, 2019). "Gérard Bouchard challenges legitimacy of Bill 21 at hearings". Montreal Gazette. Retrieved November 14, 2019.
  12. ^ "Gerard Bouchard declares opposition to Quebec's 'radical' secularism bill". Montreal. May 8, 2019. Retrieved November 14, 2019.
  13. ^ "Quebec Draws Challenge After Banning Many Public Workers From Wearing Religious Garb". HuffPost Canada. June 18, 2019.
  14. ^ "Small victory in court for groups fighting Bill 21". Global News.
  15. ^ Montpetit, J. "New court challenge brought against Quebec's secularism law". CBC. Retrieved November 6, 2019.
  16. ^ "EMSB prepares legal fight over secularism law that chair says "breeds intolerance"". CBC. September 26, 2019. Retrieved November 6, 2019.
  17. ^ Bell, D (October 2, 2019). ""It's terrifying": Naheed Nenshi calls for national groundswell against Quebec secularism bill". CBC. Retrieved November 6, 2019.
  18. ^ "Bloc Quebecois leader Blanchet says secularism, Bill 21 shouldn't be campaign issue". Global News. October 8, 2019. Retrieved November 6, 2019.
  19. ^ Montpetit, Jonathan (December 9, 2019). "François Legault's high-stakes game with the courts and Quebec's secularism law". CBC News.
  20. ^ Montpetit, Jonathan (December 12, 2019). "One law, many challenges: How lawyers are trying to overturn Quebec's religious symbols ban". CBC News. Retrieved December 13, 2019.