Quebec’s Ban on Religious Symbols in Public Sector Creates Crisis of Conscience for Many
One year ago, in the first such prohibition in North America, the Canadian province of Quebec issued a ban on public sector employees wearing any religious garb or symbol. The ban extends to hijabs, crucifixes, skullcaps or any insignia that would illustrate the wearer’s religious beliefs.
In the year since the ban, which applies to teachers, police officers, judges, prison guards and other public servants, many religious Canadians in the public sector have seen their lives change. Some who can, have simply gone “underground,” wearing their insignia under their clothing, as many Catholic women have done, covering their crucifixes with their sweaters or tucking them under their blouses. But many have had to decide between their faith and their livelihood. For observant Muslims who cannot “hide” their hijabs or Orthodox Jews who likewise keep their heads covered, the new edict has forced them to look elsewhere for employment and leave what, for many, had been a life-long career.
The ban has come under fire from religious and civil rights groups who argue that it disproportionately singles out minorities such as Muslim women, Sikhs and Jews.
“It is the state that is imposing secularism as a religion on me.”
Julien Feldman, of the English Montreal School Board (EMSB), a group that adopted a motion refusing to comply with the new law, said the board has never received a complaint from a student or parent about a teacher’s religious symbol. “This proposed legislation would be contrary to the values the EMSB teaches its children, in particular, values of diversity, acceptance, tolerance and respect for individual rights and religious freedoms,” Feldman said in a statement when the ban first became law last year.
Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, likewise condemned the new law, observing, “Canada, and indeed Quebec, are places where we are a secular society, we respect deeply people’s rights and freedoms, including freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion. It is unthinkable to me that in a free society, we would legitimize discrimination against citizens based on their religion.”
The Coalition Inclusion Quebec, a multifaith group, has mounted a legal challenge to the law in court, along with three teachers, including two Muslims and a Roman Catholic.
Ironically, Quebec’s own National Assembly features a large crucifix above the Speaker’s chair that has hung there since 1936. In light of last year’s prohibition, however, some are now proposing its removal.
Amrit Kaur is a young Sikh teacher who, along with many other female Sikhs in the diaspora, adopted the wearing of the turban (a traditionally male custom) to assert her faith and equality. Kauer observed, “Quebec asking me to take off my turban is like asking me to cut off a limb.”
And how, she asked, was she supposed to teach tolerance to children when she herself was banned from wearing a symbol of her own religious faith at work?
Forced to make a choice, she moved to the West Coast. She said the assertion by supporters of the bill that her turban would make her “indoctrinate” children was false. “It is the state that is imposing secularism as a religion on me,” she said.