Religion, secularism clashing in Quebec

Province mulls ban on ‘ostentatious’ religious symbols for public sector workers
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/22/2013

The images are striking — five illustrations showing “ostentatious” religious symbols that public sector workers in Quebec would not be allowed to wear at work — a large cross pendant, burka, turban, hijab and kippah.

The bans are part of Quebec’s proposed charter of values that includes uncovered faces in customer service and a “duty of neutrality and reserve for all state personnel.”

“The state has no place in interfering in the moral and religious beliefs of Quebecers. The state must be neutral,” said Bernard Drainville, minister responsible for democratic institutions and active citizenship.

“For this religious neutrality to take shape in public institutions, it must also show in the people who work for them. We therefore propose to establish a duty of religious neutrality and reserve among state personnel. This duty would mean that state employees could not wear conspicuous religious symbols while they work — by this we mean very visible, very obvious symbols.”

The employees in question would include ministry and state personnel (such as judges and police officers), daycare workers, school boards and municipal workers.

However, colleges, universities, public health and social services institutions and municipalities could adopt a resolution to allow these religious symbols (aside from face coverings). This authorization would be valid for up to five years and be renewable.

The proposals have been met with much debate both inside Quebec and across the country.

Numerous groups, such as the Congrès Maghrébin au Québec and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs – Quebec, denounced the proposals. The Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal asked the government to modify its proposal, saying the availability of qualified workers is the most important economic challenge employers will face in the coming decades.

“The business community is intent on doing everything possible to help integrate immigrants (into) the workplace and attract foreign talent. But the government’s proposal stigmatizes workers who wear religious symbols, who are often immigrants. It is in direct opposition to what the city’s business community wants,” said Michel Leblanc, president and CEO of the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal.

But the Fédération des commissions scolaires du Québec (FCSQ) welcomed the proposals, having asked for several years for a frame of reference around reasonable accommodation.

And the Centrale des syndicats du Québec (CSQ) is supportive, said vice-president Marc Nantel.

“We agree with the government’s initiative to launch this discussion. We must better define the secular character of Quebec and values of Quebec society,” he said. “We’re probably avant-garde… in trying to limit what could be a problem in a few years.”

When it comes to reasonable accommodations, the union has made several suggestions in this area, such as not having prayer rooms in schools, he said, but the CSQ has not formally discussed staff wearing religious symbols.

“We really need, in our establishments, to define all the rules so that you don’t leave administrative staff with the fact that they have to decide by themselves what is reasonable or not reasonable, and what should the state do and what they should do.”

But for groups whose religious beliefs require them to dress in a certain way, this is really just a bald attack, said Kenneth Krupat, a Toronto-based employment lawyer.

“Sometimes the justification is the preservation and promotion of French heritage and culture, and they view it almost as an affirmative action plan and try and disguise it and claim it’s supportable under that type of argument,” he said.

“But it is very different when it comes to this kind of legislation which, more than anything, seems to be an attack on religious minorities in Quebec rather than a promotion of state neutrality.”

If the purpose of the charter is to enshrine the neutrality of the state, it doesn’t do that at all, said Mary Anne Waldron, a professor in the faculty of law at the University of Victoria.

“If it were true — and it is not true — that someone with a religious belief system could not deal fairly with others, well then you simply have to go through the public service, question everybody on their beliefs and fire everybody who had one — it would leave you with very few civil servants. But that’s the real test and what you wear has really nothing to do with that.”

Lakeridge Health makes waves with recruitment ad

That seemed to be the message behind a recent recruitment campaign by Lakeridge Health, which runs four hospitals in the Durham Region of Ontario. It ran an ad on social media and in a student newspaper at McGill University in Montreal featuring a photograph of a female doctor wearing a hijab, with the words “We don’t care what’s on your head. We care what’s in it.”

The centre always has vacancies for health-care professionals, so it was looking to garner attention, according to Darrell Sewell, vice-president of HR and hospitality services at Lakeridge in Oshawa.

“We wanted to draw some attention to ourselves and let people know who we were and what a great leading hospital we are when it comes to quality and safety, so we wanted to get that message out. And, of course, the obvious thing is that the debate that’s going on in Quebec and being discussed across the country was just opportune as a hook.”

The region — which includes the cities of Oshawa, Whitby, Ajax and Pickering — is growing and becoming increasingly diverse, so it’s about casting a wider net, he said.

“We know that our region is changing for sure and we’re becoming more diverse and we want to celebrate that and we want to include people, so be inclusive,” he said, adding he’s not aware of any complaints about staff wearing religious symbols or clothing.

What are ‘reasonable limits’?

Since the formal announcement, the Quebec government may have softened its stance somewhat: Jean-Francois Lisée, minister responsible for the Montreal region, said the government is open to making changes to the charter after hearing feedback from the public.

And many think it unlikely the charter will pass, arguing the ban on religious symbols is not consistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms when it comes to “reasonable limits” on religious freedoms.

But even if a court accepts state neutrality as a reasonable objective that requires a limit on a religious practice, the question is whether that should include religious symbols that aren’t interfering with a person’s work, said Krupat.

“Certainly in the rest of Canada, there’d be very little difficulty, I think, on the part of any judge, in finding that religious freedom protected under the (Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms) ought to outweigh that type of legislation. But it’s unique in Quebec and they may well go and exercise the notwithstanding clause and opt out of the charter and pass this legislation anyway, if they do get the support of the assembly,” he said.

If the charter of values is implemented in its current form, it would certainly put people off from seeking public service jobs if they follow certain religious traditions, said Krupat.

“People who view that as their religious obligation are not about to stop wearing those things.”

It would mean a very difficult choice between giving up a principle of their religious belief and giving up their jobs, said Waldron.

“There will be some exceptions permitted, but nonetheless, for example… it appears that if you are a woman who wears a headscarf and work in a daycare centre, you’re probably going to be fired.”

Individual employees could have a tough time fighting the ban in court, and unionized employees may find their union won’t help, she said.

“That might raise duties of fair representation, for example, in labour law, which would be certainly interesting. But, nevertheless, employees may well, in many kinds of jobs, be in very vulnerable positions.”

If the legislation was in place, it’s also possible the ban on religious symbols could spread beyond Quebec’s public sector, according to Krupat. If a private sector employer says its customers want to be served in a neutral fashion, for example, “the courts might be sympathetic to that if that legislation were the law of the land. So it might be a first step and it might be a real problem for minorities in Quebec down the road.”

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