Government in Quebec passes Secularism Bill with Protests by Religious Groups and Bishops

The Quebec government released a strict secularism bill on June 16, 2019 with protests from religious organizations, and the bishops of Quebec. The Premier Francois Legault CAQ ("Coalition for Quebec's Future") party had a majority so they could pass the bill.  Bill 21 was voted into law by a 73-35 vote. Parti Quebecois also voted in favour of the law that prohibits the wearing of religious symbols by public service employees. 

The Bishops of Quebec released a declaration in opposition to the bill (see below)- 

Declaration of Catholic Bishops of Quebec
on the draft law on secularism of the State

Having noted that Bill 21 affects fundamental rights such as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, the Quebec Assembly of Catholic Bishops regrets that this legislative exercise is taking place without the religious organizations concerned having been invited to attend. participate directly. After having expressed ourselves in our press releases of March 6 and April 16, 2019, on behalf of the 31 bishops who minister on the territory of Quebec, we wish to speak again when the debate on this bill strongly polarizes Quebec society.

We think it is particularly important to intervene when the prospect of using the gag order to end parliamentary debates is an option that the government considers legitimate. Rather, we believe that a bill that has the effect of significantly limiting individual liberties must be studied with rigor and rush. We consider that every government has the responsibility to contribute, through its laws and actions, to the respect of the rights of each and every one of its citizens, as well as to a peaceful living together. Respect for the fair treatment of people and the enhancement of personal freedom have shaped the history of our nation. Quebec society is characterized by its pacifism, hospitality and tolerance, particularly in the face of the religious diversity we have tamed. This attitude has emerged gradually through discussion and frank dialogue, including within Christian communities. At this stage of the most recent debate, we are of the opinion that Bill 21 on the secularism of the state seriously forgets the legacy of this tradition.

Many citizens support the government's plan and we reaffirm our commitment to the principle of the inclusion of secularism and religious neutrality of the state in legislation. We also agree with the prohibition of the wearing of religious symbols by state employees who exercise coercive authority and who have a strict dress code. However, the measures affecting teachers reveal a lack of knowledge about religious life in society, as well as its cultural connotation. This lack of knowledge seems to us fueled by prejudices and fear. Rather than defuse them, these measures exacerbate them. While it is true that individuals have claimed, claimed and will probably still claim an interpretation of a particular religion to disturb public order and attack the dignity of other human beings, the vast majority of believers, all religious traditions combined, contribute positively to living together. On a daily basis, these people build a better society through their benevolent acceptance of others, their active solidarity with excluded and poor people, their hope for the future and their concern for peace.

Certain traditions incite or force the faithful to put on particular clothes or symbols, generally as a sign of humility. This phenomenon seems to be misunderstood, especially when we automatically consider any religious sign worn by a person as a tool of propaganda whose function is to convert those who see it. Mistrust inspired by certain dress practices related to a particular religious identity may be exacerbated by the discretion of some other religious groups to use explicit signs. For example, Christianity, which remains the declared religious affiliation of the vast majority of the population in Quebec, does not require its faithful to wear specific clothing or symbols.

We believe that the State Secularity Act, if it includes the prohibition of the wearing of religious symbols by teachers, will increase unjustified mistrust. We believe that it is better to fight prejudices and fear of the other in a rational way, by educating people about the diversity of religious, spiritual and cultural experiences and traditions, rather than by prohibitions.

On the other hand, while we welcome the government's recent effort to specify in the Act what a religious sign is, the proposed definition only adds to the confusion. This definition, which includes a subjective criterion and a so-called objective criterion, will oblige representatives of the secular state to judge repeatedly the religious or non-religious character of various objects. This dynamic has an effect totally opposite to that sought by the assertion of secularity and neutrality of the state.
The Qu├ębec government should seek to develop and promote a better understanding of religions and a better social and professional integration of religious and cultural minorities. We are convinced that the government can do this while affirming and safeguarding its secularism. It could, for example, consider the establishment of an observatory of the religious fact, to document and analyze the cultural and religious transformations that we live and participate in collective education, from a perspective of neutrality. Such an approach would clearly show that the government is concerned first and foremost with the common good and the integrity of the human person, which means taking into account all of its needs, including spiritual and religious needs.

We believe that Bill 21, as it stands now, will fuel fear and intolerance, rather than contributing to social peace. We therefore call on members of the government and all Quebecers to promote important amendments to this project, in order to seek more to welcome than to exclude, to understand that to reject. We denounce the fact that the prohibition of the wearing of religious symbols by teachers will have an impact on the access to employment and social integration of young people who belong to religious and cultural minorities, and who want to contribute positively to active in Quebec society by becoming teachers.

Finally, whether the State Secularity Act is adopted as is or in an amended version, we must collectively seriously consider the following things. We must seize the opportunity to reduce the current social polarization through dialogue. In the recent history of Quebec, bishops have sought to be active and committed partners, less concerned with defending their interests than with contributing to the construction of a modern, open, serene, just and welcoming society. diversity of its citizens. We proudly recall that the major players in the secularization of Quebec, including Bishop Alphonse-Marie Parent, were believers. It is in this spirit of citizenship and in a search for conciliation that we wanted to speak, while Quebec is experiencing historic moments.

June 14, 2019