Better late than never, one supposes: Three days before Premier François Legault’s self-imposed deadline for passing Bill 21, which would prohibit certain civil servants from wearing religious symbols on the job, his government proposed an amendment that would actually define “religious symbol.” (It had hitherto argued none was necessary.) If the amendment is adopted, teachers, police officers, Crown prosecutors and others deemed to be in positions of authority would be forbidden to display any “clothing, symbol, jewellery, ornament, accessory or headgear that is worn in connection with a religious conviction or belief and can reasonably be considered as referring to a religious affiliation.”
Kudos to whichever reporter thought on Wednesday to ask whether wedding rings count. The question utterly stymied both Legault and his Diversity and Inclusiveness Minister — you read that correctly — Simon Jolin-Barrette, who’s in charge of this project. “The person who wears an object that for her constitutes a religious symbol, that constitutes a religious symbol,” Jolin-Barrette explained. “And the person who wears an object that in the eyes of a reasonable person represents a religious symbol, that constitutes a religious symbol.”
Many scoffed at the question. Reporters were just playing silly buggers, they said — “f—ing the dog,” in Quebec parlance
. The government quickly clarified that wedding rings would not be covered.
Kudos to whichever reporter thought on Wednesday to ask whether wedding rings count
And indeed, there are many 100-per-cent non-religious wedding bands in the Quebec civil service. But many wedding rings are unambiguously religious symbols to the people wearing them. The standard Catholic marriage script suggests priests ask “the Lord (to) bless these rings” before giving them to the bride and groom. Each will ask the other to “receive this ring as a sign of my love and fidelity. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Of course, who’s to know? The religious rings don’t glow a special colour. So long as devoutly religious police officers and public-school teachers do their jobs properly and professionally, without fear or favour, everything will be fine. Only that’s precisely what Bill 21’s opponents have been saying forever: A kippa or hijab is no evidence of a partial or biased civil servant, and the lack of a kippa or hijab is no evidence of an impartial or unbiased one. By definition, a law about religious symbols can’t do anything that’s not symbolic — only in this case, the symbolism involves trampling all over minority rights.
Legault has never shown any particular enthusiasm for this project; rather, he defends it on grounds that it has majority support and that it’s time to put the whole issue to bed. As Bill 21 nears passage, more and more voices have made it clear that won’t happen.
On Saturday Le Devoir ran a huge spread about how much religion is costing Quebecers in terms of tax breaks for churches and faith-based organizations. It gave ample voice to the view that faith itself, separated from the charitable works of faithful people, has no intrinsic value to society (or is even a net detriment). “It is difficult to understand how we can enshrine the secular status of the Québécois state in the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, reaffirm the separation of the state and religion and the equality of all citizens, and give away hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue every year,” an editorial argued.
In fact it’s perfectly easy to understand: The government demonstrates its neutrality, and its respect for the equality of all citizens, by treating people the same way regardless of their private faith or lack thereof. If laïcité were incompatible with respecting religious faith and its contributions to society, it’s unlikely the French state would own and maintain so many churches.
Outright anti-religious sentiment is one thing Bill 21 won’t get rid of. It also won’t quiet people who think it should apply to daycare workers and teachers at state-subsidized religious schools — or indeed to the entire civil service, as was contemplated by Pauline Marois’ popular Values Charter. And Bill 21 certainly won’t dissuade bigots from taking out their inadequacies on Quebec’s minority populations. This week a Montreal woman who wears a niqab tracked down the driver of a bus that blew past her at a stop — deliberately, she alleges, based on anti-niqab sentiments the driver had previously expressed on Facebook. When the woman complained in the same medium, CBC reported, respondents included a Société de Transport de Montréal union rep who suggested “a normal Quebecer would have waited for the next bus.”
It’s one of many alarming incidents that Muslim Quebecers in particular insist have become more and more frequent as this interminable debate drags on. The government has proposed no solutions except to make the majority more comfortable — perhaps by banning women wearing niqabs from riding public buses. That particular question will have to wait for a while, tied up as it is in the courts. But Bill 21 will pass before MNAs break for the summer.
At least those affected will finally know where they stand (pending further restrictions). At least greener pastures await elsewhere in Canada if they decide, not unreasonably, that they are no long welcome.
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