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What does it mean to respect religious freedom?

Québec’s Bill 62 represents a limited and disingenuous understanding of basic liberties
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Québec’s Bill 62 , which was passed into law on October 18, has caused considerable controversy due to the broad restrictions it imposes on religious people seeking to interact with state institutions in normal, commonplace ways.

The bill bans people from wearing face coverings — including religious garments like the niqab and the burqa — when interacting with government representatives or using government-provided services, except in emergencies. The government of Québec provided some examples of how the bill will be applied in practice: a person with their face covered will be able to browse through the library, but not take out a book; they will be allowed to visit a family member in the hospital, but not interact with the nurses. Perhaps most burdensome of all, they will not be able to sit in a publicly funded university lecture or high school class — a formidable barrier for students pursuing an education in the province.

The government has claimed that the women who cover their faces for religious reasons may be eligible for an exemption, but this is little more than a formality. Minister of Justice Stéphanie Vallée has confirmed that, in the bill’s current form, all face coverings will be banned, regardless of their nature. And although exemptions are theoretically possible, the bar for such exemptions is set very high: the bill mandates that any accommodations should be “consistent with the principle of state neutrality,” and should not “impose undue hardship” on “public safety.”

These provisions are intended to give lawmakers recourse to deny accommodations requested on religious grounds. It is an unavoidable fact that religiously motivated face coverings are the explicit target of this legislation.

Citing significant concerns about religious discrimination, a Québec Superior Court judge recently issued a temporary suspension of this portion of the bill, calling on the government to clarify how restrictions on face coverings would be implemented in practice. With this in mind, there is certainly reason to be skeptical about the bill’s intentions.

The justifications that have been offered for these restrictions are varied. The government has provided a confused plethora of reasons — some combination of concern over identification, communication, and public safety. Québec Premier Philippe Couillard defended the new law on the ground that “we are in a free and democratic society. You speak to me, I should see your face, and you should see mine. It’s as simple as that.”

Questioned by reporters about the consequences of refusing to uncover one’s face, Vallée made the bluntest statement of all: “It’s the person’s choice to have access to services or not.” In short, if individuals want access to government services, all they have to do is abandon their religious beliefs. No problem.

This summarizes the true nature of Bill 62. It is intended to make the religious practices of some individuals a barrier to their participation in public life and to their access to public services. The official objectives of the legislation — security, communication, and identification — suppose only the most restrictive view on religious liberty: that the only responsibility of the government is to ensure that religious beliefs and practices are not strictly banned.

This limited understanding of religious liberty is flawed. Under section 2(a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the government has a responsibility to uphold religious freedom. This means allowing for a wide range of beliefs to be actionable in the public sphere. It is not enough to make religious beliefs formally legal; they must be substantively unassailed as well.

Instead of regressing to the restrictive principles that underlie Bill 62, we need to assume an expansive accommodationist view of religious freedom that recognizes the fundamental goal of the principle itself: to make room within society for each individual to pursue their life in accordance with their particular beliefs, views, values, and ideals.

Following this more favourable principle, the problem with Bill 62 becomes evident. The defenders of the bill refuse to take seriously the fact that, by making it impossible for a person to board the bus with their face covered, it becomes functionally illegal for certain Muslim women, who cover their faces for religious reasons, to ride the bus. This would force these women, and others in similar positions, to make a choice between exercising a religious practice and using a public service — thereby establishing the observation of their Muslim faith as a legally sanctioned barrier to accessing the public sphere.

The establishment of such a barrier is absolutely incompatible with the ideal of religious freedom, central to which is the principle that the government may not discriminate on the basis of religious belief or practice.

Vallée can hide behind the artificial distinction between outlawing a practice and simply making that practice incompatible with public life. But this is disingenuous and discriminatory. Taking religious freedom seriously means far more than refraining from making some religion or religious practice entirely illegal. It entails taking care not to force minority citizens into choosing between their religion and their government. It means making sure that religion is never a consideration when a person ‘decides,’ as Vallée claims, whether to access public services or not.

The fact that this type of legislation inevitably falls hardest on members of marginalized or underrepresented religious communities demonstrates yet another one of its flaws — that the burden of choosing between the law and religious belief is not distributed evenly. Rather, it is unfairly shouldered by members of groups who may not have the political clout to sway the vote in the opposite direction.

Supporters of the law claim that it is not the responsibility of the government to set up society in a way that is most ‘convenient’ for Muslims, but this assertion ignores the fact that Canadian society is already set up to convenience non-Muslims. The institutions of Canadian society are already moulded so as not to interfere with the religious beliefs and values of populations who have historically had a significant presence here. The tough choices that Vallée prescribes only need to be made by those who lack the influence to avoid them.

Religious expression is crucial for ensuring that all people have a far-reaching freedom to pursue their life in a way that is in accordance with their particular beliefs and values. The ability to attend class, pay for a bus ticket, ask a doctor a question, and borrow a book from a library must be included in that freedom. Bill 62’s intentions — and the majority support it apparently enjoys from Canadians within and outside Québec — reflect a total betrayal of that ideal.

Zach Rosen is a second-year student at Trinity College studying History and Philosophy. He is The Varsity’s Current Affairs Columnist.