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The Shortfalls of Quebec’s Bill 21The Shortfalls of Quebec’s Bill 21

The Shortfalls of Quebec’s Bill 21

As legislation banning religious symbols in public sector workplaces leaves committee and heads for passage in the National Assembly, Ottawa writer Ruth Dick dissects it on feminist, philosophic, legal, and religious neutrality grounds.

Ruth Dick
10 minute read

Absolutely nothing in Quebec’s Bill 21 would directly impact me if I were a public servant in Quebec, as I have been elsewhere. The Bill prohibits the wearing of religious symbols by those in the pay of the province, including a variety of public servants, legal professionals, and teachers while exercising their functions.  

I don’t wear religious symbols. I was brought up by atheists, one of Jewish and one of Christian heritage, trained up in the reflexive skepticism of analytic philosophy, and preoccupied in my work as a litigator with demonstrable fact and the contesting of evidence.  

I believe in the separation of the State from religion, in the religious neutrality of the State, and, to echo the language of the bill: I “attach importance to the equality of women.”  

You’d think I’d be happy with Bill 21, right?


I oppose Bill 21 right to my analytic, legally-trained secular, and feminist marrow. First, the contents of this egregious piece of legislation are not what is meant by either the religious neutrality of the State or the separation of the State and religions. Second, Bill 21 will exacerbate the inequalities suffered by women. It is an abhorrent, dangerous, and totally unnecessary piece of legislation.

The “separation of State and religions” usually means the State itself has not adopted a religion. Separation so understood avoids the oppressions of using the power and pervasiveness of the State to force upon everyone a single set of religious beliefs and practices. The State does not enforce, require, or favour adherence. It does not require those it governs to be followers of that religion, or show favour to those who are, fault those who aren’t.  

It does not require its employees – judges, teachers, midwives, or bureaucrats – to be adherents of a State-sanctioned faith in order to hold the position. It is this kind of separation that allows for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience by not permitting one religion, over others, to hijack the power of the State and thereby suppress other sets of beliefs and practices.

That established, justifiable meaning of separation – to avoid wedding State power to an official set of religious beliefs - is entirely different from State functionaries wearing symbols of their personal religious faith as they carry out their duties. A person wearing a hijab while processing my driver’s license renewal is no more suggesting to me that the State is Muslim than her being 5’4” and married suggests to me the State is 5’4” and married.  

People who work for the State, its agents and representatives, are still individuals.  I manage to make the license renewal transaction periodically while being perfectly able to distinguish that the State requires me to get an updated picture and pay a fee, but that the State functionary behind the counter having red hair, wearing glasses and a crucifix doesn’t mean I have to dye my hair, convert, or become nearsighted in order to get my license.

An officially-religious State could hinder or even harm me if I am not an adherent of the State’s religion. A State employee carrying out their duty while wearing a religious symbol does me no harm or hindrance whatsoever. If I were not allowed to send my child to school unless I practiced a State-dictated religion, that could be an oppression.  My child’s Spanish teacher wearing a kepot, however, in no way acts upon me, or my child, oppressively.

There is no threat from a religious State employee wearing a religious symbol to a citizen of a different faith, or no faith, any more than an employee wearing a grey tie poses a threat to a citizen wearing a blue tie.

If the freedom to swing one’s arm ends at the tip of another’s nose in our democracy, the wearing of a religious symbol by a State employee will almost always fall well short of the tip of my nose. The reason is simple: whether an employee wears a religious symbol for the most part will have nothing whatever to do with the carrying out of their duties on behalf of the State.  

Aristotle said justice consists in treating like things alike and unalike things unalike. In practice, this means sorting out what’s relevant and what isn’t in assessing something. Faith will almost never be relevant to the ability of a person to do a provincially-paid job. If the wearing of a religious symbol does not interfere with the performance of a job, it is no more relevant than any other article of clothing or jewelry.

This prohibition on an individual’s religious dress is totally unrelated to the exercise of State power in service of an officially adopted religion.  When most of us hear “separation of State and religions,” we understand and, in our pluralistic democracies, largely accept, that State power should not be used to enforce particular religious requirements. For Bill 21 to use the phrase to mean an expression of an individual’s faith in dress smells like a smuggling operation, sneaking this egregious prohibition in by referencing the legitimacy of separating religion from the dictates of the State itself.  The language of the bill sounds familiar, benign, and acceptable, but it is not.

There is a similar slipperiness found in the use of “State neutrality” in the bill.  It means the State does not favour, nor does it target, particular religions.  This is a good thing. I have very little in the way of extended family on my father’s side because a State decided it wanted to be rid of adherents of Judaism.  They died in the Warsaw ghetto and Auschwitz-Birkenau.  

Just as it is an essential democratic value to ensure the separation of the power of the State from a particular religion, it is an essential democratic value to not allow State power to become wedded to a hostility toward some other religion. The danger of religious groups can be the idea that divine sanction has been given our worst tribalism instincts, though we know those exist absent religion; the fault is a human one, and it rears its head in many contexts.  For a State to adopt that way of thinking, though, is a step on the road to our worst atrocities. Hence the essential importance of State neutrality.

But how is State neutrality to be achieved? There are two ways to go: Allow as much and as varied faith as possible (to the point it brushes the noses of others) or allow none of it. The first approach, fostering pluralism, recognizes the essential role faith plays people’s lives, and the brute fact that we will probably not all agree on a single set of beliefs, but must, in the words of Peter Stockland, share the space in which we live with each other.  The State’s role is to avoid favouring or targeting the variety of religions within the larger limits of values and laws.  

The other approach is to wipe evidence of any and all faith from the public sphere. Suppressing the wearing of personal religious symbols by its employees is like wanting to avoid the oppressiveness of requiring all citizens to dye their hair purple by making sure no State employees are blonde or brunette or redheaded, lest someone think they’re required to dye their hair to match that of the person on the bench in small claims court. Rather than simply having the State not adopt an official hair color, they make all their employees go bald.

Forced baldness might seem a silly example but forcing those employed by the province to shed their religious adornment will be no less invasive. The wearing of religious symbols isn’t like the wearing of a favourite musician t-shirt. Wearing a religious symbol is often much more than that, and not just because it is an expression of something so central to an individual’s siloed sense of self. It is often relational, between the individual and their faith community, and the individual and God.

Precisely because it does not interfere in the carrying out of work duties, it might seem passive, but to require the removal is to push the State into an individual’s personal religious practice. An analogous secular example would be to require the removal of wedding rings, or not being allowed to put up a photo of one’s spouse or children in a workspace, lest they offend the unmarried or childless (which has actually happened to me).  

So which is the more neutral, the approach of Bill 21 or pluralism? Under pluralism the State only interferes when conflict arises, either between citizens or with the wider values and laws, which the approach of Bill 21 will share). Here, however, the very intrusiveness of the State into individual religious practice by disallowing religious adornment at work demonstrates the bill’s path to neutrality is less neutral – as measured by interference in the lives of individuals - than the pluralist route.

The woman who is told she must remove her hijab at work suffers a much greater intrusion than I do should I encounter her wearing it behind the counter when I go to replace my lost OHIP card.  

And none of these dress prohibitions are necessary to avoid the real danger, which is the State dictating, favouring, or punishing a particular set of religious beliefs and practices.

Intolerance of religious dress, intolerance of religious observance and religious practice in the workspace may be neutral in the sense that no particular religion is picked on over another.  But intolerance of everybody is still intolerance.  And THAT is also the message of this bill.

It is a message that comes at a time when the news is filled, again and again, with terror attacks on people at worship.  The very spaces into which this bill banishes the faithful are under attack around the world. Not only are the dress prohibitions unnecessary to avoid the real danger, they do their bit to amplify the terrorists’ message, for the State speaks for the wider society: Your faith is not welcome, your faith is not safe and your faith won’t be tolerated.

By banning personal religious expression in State employees the bill contrives to make such practice of a piece with the threat that State non-neutrality would pose to our values of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. The bill sets these employees up as representing a danger to our society which they don’t.

And that is also an unconscionable thing to do, especially at this time.  

Being of mixed heritage, I have firsthand experience of what it is like to get an offer to join on the proviso you deny some essential truth about yourself.  The Jewish boy I dated who wanted to introduce me to his mother, but asked me to promise not to mention mine (who didn’t convert).  The Brownie troupe who made me say a Christian prayer in the basement of the Anglican Church.

This is not being welcomed. This makes you feel isolated and unwelcome, even as you’re being invited inside. In some ways, that dissonance is worse than overt rejection.  It breeds mistrust of the friendly smiles. When you feel the hostility to part of you, you feel hostile in return. You do not belong.

This prohibition is likely to have exactly the same effect, in a much more profound way. Sowing mistrust will discourage integration. It will create an atmosphere of below-ground hostility and corrosive suspicion. It not only amplifies the terrorist message, it gives them exactly what they’re looking for – disaffection, isolation, a feeling of being under threat from the wider community from which they’re only accepted by being made complicit in their own exclusion. All this we know is a breeding ground for susceptibility to radicalization.
Forcing people to bury their faith won’t diminish it. It will harden it into something defensive.  For some, the best defense will be a good offense. It is an approach that is morally, socially, and psychologically wrong and it is dangerous.

All this has the potential to do real damage to the fabric of Quebec society and as with most social damage, it will fall heavily upon women.  

Given the prohibitions, the intrusiveness into observance, the bill will for some people force a choice between government employment and faith. Bill 21 is a manifest, extant threat: Maintain your faith, and you will not be eligible to be employed by the State. There will be those who will give up their State employment, stable work with good benefits. The choice may well drive many of them into greater economic hardship, into greater isolation.  

Women already suffer lower pay for the same work, less opportunity, less stable employment, greater financial insecurity, less likelihood of promotion, and greater financial dependence already.  They face the adverse perceptions of sexism in the workplace, greater likelihood of harassment, the challenges of the competing commitments of motherhood, and greater household responsibility. To the extent this bill affects employment, it will compound these things that adversely affect women.  The idea that this is an effective means, much less a direct expression, of valuing the equality of women at the most fundamental level is laughable.

And not in the least bit funny.  

Thanks to this bill’s exacerbating potential, women are arguably more at risk for isolation, economic hardship, fear, and abuse. When the world is more hostile, more dangerous, offers less opportunity, it is women who suffer more.

And if Bill 21 succeeds by its own lights?  It drives the markers of religious belief out of the public square, tamps down expressions of spirituality, of looking toward things beyond ourselves, beyond the materiality of our secular world.  What I think happens is it creates a value vacuum.  Into which rushes – what? Well, the obvious candidate is our culture: our consumerism, selfishness, preoccupation with success as measured by our dominance of the natural world, of each other.  

In rushes our understanding of our fundamental relationship with each other as one of competition. We now stand complicit in the die off a million species, according to a recent UN report.  Ours is a culture that can’t give up short term gains for longer ones, that has us drowning ourselves and our planet in waste because we are at a loss for values that don’t wreck.  

My final objection to Bill 21 is as a mother.  We stand to leave our children scarcity and violence if we don’t quickly turn toward the non-material, toward community, toward an acknowledgment of the fact that we share this ever diminishing viable space, and need to value it and each other in terms other than what can I own, eat, or conquer.

I may not wear religious symbolism, but I am grateful when I encounter it in a space that affords mutual trust. Bill 21 will create a sense of enmity where there might have been friendship, tolerance, mutual understanding and the possibility of a better way.

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Ruth Dick

Ruth Dick is an Ottawa lawyer and photographer who has lectured on medical ethics at the University of Manitoba and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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