Taylor and Bouchard both reject Quebec bill banning religious signs – iPolitics.ca

Taylor and Bouchard both reject Quebec bill banning religious signs - iPolitics.ca
Bill 21 hearings weaken the democratic basis of the law: religious leaders
After spending all day hearing from defenders of his secularism bill, Quebec Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette was confronted Tuesday evening with a challenge from a wispy-haired, 87-year-old philosopher. 

"We are still waiting for an explanation about why this is necessary," Charles Taylor told Jolin-Barrette at legislative hearing in Quebec City.

If passed, the bill would bar Quebec civil servants in positions of authority — including public teachers, police officers and Crown prosecutors — from wearing garments like the kippa or hijab while at work.

“I could ask you, ‘Does someone who doesn’t wear symbols bring their own biases and prejudices to the job?’ Of course they can,” she said. “If your intentions are in the right place you can do your job. Wearing a symbol or not wearing one doesn’t make a difference.

Just over a decade ago, Taylor and sociologist Gerard Bouchard co-authored a landmark government study into how best to accommodate religious minorities. 

The group of seven religious leaders said they’d be holding their own “hearings” on Bill 21 next Monday in Montreal. But for now they say they’re holding out hope the government will have a change of heart and allow them to testify at the National Assembly.

In response to Taylor's challenge, Jolin-Barrette argued that large parts of his bill were inspired by the Bouchard-Taylor report. But Taylor replied they never recommended stripping teachers of the right to wear religious symbols. 

Representatives of Christian, Jewish and Muslim religions got together to denounce Bill 21. Rabbi Avi Finegold, Imam Musabbir Alam and Reverend Paula Kline at a press conference at the St-James United Church in Montreal on Tuesday May 7, 2019. Dave Sidaway / Montreal Gazette

"No right is without a limit," Taylor said. He added, though, that trampling on fundamental rights — such as religious freedom — required a good reason, something the government had yet to provide.

One of the bill’s goals is to ensure the neutrality of the state and, in particular, to reinforce democratic norms like the equality between men and women. Sara Abou-Bakr says the legislation takes a thinly veiled shot at women who wear religious head coverings.

That point was echoed in later testimony by Quebec's human rights commission and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, one of only two religious groups invited to speak at the hearings.

"We don't think the government has demonstrated that there is a serious threat to secularism in Quebec," said Dan-Michaël Abécassis of CIJA. 

Representatives from seven religious groups said Tuesday they wrote the Coalition Avenir Québec government in hopes of participating in its consultations on Bill 21. They said that, one by one, they were largely dismissed or ignored.

Taylor has since backed away from one of the most discussed recommendations of the 2008 report, which suggested that police and judges not be allowed to display signs of their faith.

“We have this tendency to explain what the veil means to Muslim women without actually asking Muslim women why they wear it,” said Abou-Bakr, a spokesperson for the National Council of Canadian Muslims.

He changed his mind, he said, when he saw the consequences of proposing limits on religious expression. 

"Campaigning on this issue stirs up hate," Taylor said. "You can't exaggerate the alienation this causes for minorities."

Taylor testified alongside Jocelyn Maclure, a Université Laval philosopher who also worked on the Bouchard-Taylor report. Maclure issued his own challenge to the government: produce studies that show religious symbols by themselves lead to conversion.

"I'm still waiting to see those studies because they don't exist," Maclure said.  

The CAQ began its public hearings Tuesday on the legislation that would forbid public school teachers, police officers, court employees and other civil servants from wearing religious symbols on the job.

The two philosophers were the first critics of the bill to appear before the committee on the first of six days of hearings into the draft legislation.

“I’m here in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in religious communities for whom religious dress and religious symbols are a part of who they are and how they practice that faith.

All the groups who testified to that point backed the bill, even suggesting it go further. They want to see it applied to private school teachers and daycare workers.

Some of these groups didn't hesitate to use fiery language to describe the danger of not passing strict limits on religious symbols in the civil service.

Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, who is sponsoring Bill 21, said Tuesday that the legislation strikes the right balance between individual and collective rights.

Djemila Benhabib, an outspoken secularism advocate, equated Muslim women who refuse to remove their hijab at work with extremists. 

Reverend Paula Kline, who says her group was also refused a place at the hearings, told reporters Bill 21 unfairly targets the Muslim, Jewish and Sikh faith.

"Women who wear the hijab … are engaging in emotional blackmail when they say they won't take it off. I consider them to be fundamentalists," said Benhabib, who represent a group called Collectif citoyen pour l'égalité et la laïcité.

Of the 36 people or groups invited to speak at the parliamentary hearings, only two represent those affected by the bill: a Muslim group and a Jewish group.

(Premier François Legault disagreed with Benhabib's characterization, saying: "Let's be careful with the labels.")

Another group speaking for secular North Africans tabled a document that said women who wear the hijab "aren't really Muslim." 

The Liberal secularism critic, Hélène David, asked the group what they thought about women who wear the hijab by choice.

“I think my presence here today and the fact that I’m free to give my opinion shows that I have the same rights as any man.”

The Coalition Avenir Québec has a strong majority, and has indicated it wants to pass by the bill by the end of June. 

Jolin-Barrette added that the CAQ’s electoral victory last fall gives the government a mandate to move forward on its platform.

But Legault has also said he wants to build broader support among the opposition parties, if possible. So far, only the Parti Québéois has expressed any openness.

“We have this tendency to explain what the veil means to Muslim women without actually asking Muslim women why they wear it.

The price of their support, the PQ interim leader said Tuesday, is extending the bill to private schools and daycares, as well as clarifying how it will be enforced.

“If anything, a woman wearing a head covering on the job sends the signal that Quebec is an inclusive society.”

Jolin-Barrette, the bill's sponsor, told reporters before the hearings began that the government wouldn't negotiate on a number of points. Chief among them, he said, was the bill's invocation of the notwithstanding clause.

That would protect the eventual law from court challenges based on claims it violates religious freedoms.

Along with the measures targeting teachers, the use of the nothwithstanding clause is arguably the bill's most controversial feature, roundly denounced by legal experts and civil rights advocates. 

Jolin-Barrette opened the hearings by addressing the widespread criticism the draft legislation has attracted. He said the 2018 election gave the government a clear mandate to move forward with its proposals.

"The government of Quebec is convinced it has found the right balance between individual rights and collective rights," he said.

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