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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

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Quebec secularism bill even tougher than expected

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MONTREAL — After two months of leaks and preliminary guidelines, the Parti Québécois government on Nov. 7 tabled a bill for the “Charter of State Secularism” that is even more far-reaching and restrictive than the proposed charter of Quebec values.

Bill 60 was vigorously denounced by Jewish groups, which say it violates fundamental rights.

Both the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) and B’nai Brith Canada say they will take legal action, if necessary, should the bill become law.

“We are disappointed that, rather than heeding the advice of a cross-section of Quebecers, including Quebec’s human rights commission, health institutions and teachers’ unions, the government has hardened its position by introducing even more stringent measures,” said Eric Maldoff and Luciano Del Negro, respectively, CIJA chair and vice-president for Quebec.

This “intransigent government is sending the message to Quebec minorities that our rights are dependent on the majority, rather than being protected and guaranteed as they should be under the rule of law,” they stated.

The organization is particularly disturbed by section 38 of the bill, which it says opens up the possibility of preventing elected officials from sitting in the National Assembly because of their outward religious identity.

That section allows the legislature to establish rules “to govern the wearing of religious symbols by members,” as well as to decide on the presence of other religious symbols, such as the crucifix over the Speaker’s chair.

On the basis of “an alleged threat to state neutrality and the equality between men and women,” the bill is marginalizing people and threatening social cohesion, CIJA charged.

The government is using this issue as a “political manoeuvre to the detriment of fundamental rights and freedoms…”

Noting that Jews have played a significant in Quebec’s public life since 1832, when they achieved full political rights, CIJA stated that “outward expressions of faith by the Jewish community…does not threaten the social cohesion of Quebec society, nor the religious neutrality of the state…”

B’nai Brith said the bill discriminates against persons of faith and makes them “second-class and, indeed, unwanted citizens.

“The government, by setting itself up as the arbiter of religious expression, is doing the exact opposite of its supposed goal of achieving a secular state,” said Allan Adel, national chair of B’nai Brith’s League for Human Rights.

“This contradiction and notion that state secularism forbids the acceptance of religious expression in the public realm is itself an example of the misguided nature of the bill.”

Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney said that if the bill passes, the federal government will challenge the law, if it is found to violate the Canadian constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religion.

The bill amends the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms to give primacy to the secularism charter.

The 19-page bill, introduced by Democratic Institutions Minister Bernard Drainville, as expected, prohibits the wearing on the job of “religious objects that overtly indicate a religious affiliation” or otherwise expressing beliefs by all provincial and municipal public and para-public employees.

The bill now extends that to government-appointed labour arbitrators and members of public inquiry commissions, and possibly anyone who enters into a service contract or subsidy agreement with a public body.

Physicians and pharmacists will be allowed to refrain from providing professional services contrary to their personal convictions.

The bill provides a framework for handling requests for accommodation on religious grounds. For example, if the request is for absence from work, public bodies must take into consideration the consequences to other personnel.

Instead of the five-year, renewable exemption that had been discussed for health and social services institutions, CEGEPs and universities and municipalities, the bill requires all public bodies to immediately undertake an implementation plan.

The only break these institutions and cities may receive is that their transition period toward compliance is five years maximum. An exception may be made to extend the transition period for institutions that have a historic “confessional dimension.”

All other public bodies have one year to comply, although new employees will have to abide by the charter immediately.

The bill also sets out rules for subsidized daycare, including in-home services, that seek to “facilitate the integration of children without regard to social or ethnic origin or religious affiliation.”

The teaching of religious dogma or practice is forbidden. Observing a diet stemming from a religious belief “must not be authorized if its aim, through words or actions, is to teach children that precept.”

Premier Pauline Marois said: “This charter marks an important milestone in our history. It affirms what we are and defines a Quebec in which we want to live together, no matter our origin or our religion.

“Forty years ago, we consecrated the primacy of French as a common value of Quebecers. Today, we affirm the common values of secularism, the religious neutrality of the state, and the equality between women and men.

“These values are our cement; it’s what brings us together, beyond our individual differences. The charter will be a source of harmony and cohesion for Quebec.”

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