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Jewish lawyers raise serious objections to secularism bill

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Frank Schlesinger

Quebec’s secularism bill not only infringes on protected rights, but its ambiguity would compromise the very state neutrality the government seeks to enshrine, contends an association of the province’s Jewish jurists in outlining its opposition to the proposed legislation.

“Although Bill 21 aims to promote, among other things, the neutrality of the state, in practice, the contrary can well result,” states the Lord Reading Law Society in its brief to the Quebec national assembly committee studying the bill.

The society criticized the bill for making “religious neutrality” and “laicity” an imposed state religion that would deprive individuals of fundamental rights and freedoms. It argued that state neutrality is already guaranteed in the Canadian and Quebec charters of rights, as well as protected through the oaths of office taken in the legal and certain other professions.

The organization noted that not only would a Jewish man be prevented from becoming a Crown prosecutor or judge if he insists on wearing a kippah on the job, but the prohibition on religious symbols would also apply to any lawyer or notary working for the state.

Frank Schlesinger, the society’s human rights committee chair, said a “vigorous” request to be granted the opportunity to appear before the committee was denied, so it was limited to submitting a written brief, which was about 40 pages, plus almost 60 pages of annexes.

Among the association’s primary objections to the bill is that it creates “an artificial hierarchy of rights” that would place an ambiguously defined religious neutrality ahead of all other rights. In other words, the law would subordinate individual freedoms of religion, conscience and expression to religious neutrality.

In the society’s estimation and based on jurisprudence, the state’s obligation to be neutral includes not discriminating against individuals expressing a faith, and its members are concerned about how the law would be applied.

“In allowing unelected and unknown administrative personnel to create undefined and possibly coercive measures to enforce the ban on wearing ‘religious symbols,’ the national assembly is abdicating its exclusive authority to legislate, contrary to the very basis of the rule of law,” said society president Inna Nekhim.

The organization also took strong issue with the inclusion of the notwithstanding clause in the legislation to head off a constitutional challenge. “Inserting the clause is a clear admission the bill does not respect fundamental liberties,” said Schlesinger. “Such infringement is cause for concern for all Quebecers who rely upon the charters to protect a broad range of rights and freedoms.”

The group also pointed out Canada is bound by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1976 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and said that support for such legislation among a majority of Quebecers does not justify its adoption.

READ: KAY: WHY JEWS SHOULD SUPPORT BILL 21

The society also expressed concern over the bill’s exemption for “emblematic or toponymic elements of Quebec’s cultural heritage,” which are not clearly defined, implying the government is prepared to compromise on religious neutrality in that respect.

“Does cultural heritage include only Christian cultural heritage or also contributions to this cultural heritage by the minorities and/or aboriginals of Quebec?” the society asks in its brief.

Founded in 1948, the society defines itself as the collective voice of Jewish jurists in Quebec. The brief, which is available at lordreading.org, was drafted without the participation of any sitting member of a court or of any administrative tribunal.

In related news, Charles Bronfman let his views on the bill be known. Speaking at a public event at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom on May 16, he said, “Surely, this won’t happen.… When you start chipping away at freedoms, it’s so very dangerous.”

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