What Is Quebec’s Secularism Law—And How Does It Affect Women?

A ban on religious symbolism in the public sector is prompting cries of xenophobia and sexism in Quebec.

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Quebec secularism bill 21-Quebec Premiere Francois Legault speaks into a microphone

François Legault, Quebec Premier. (Photo, The Canadian Press Images/Ghyslain Bergeron)

Quebec’s government has passed a polarizing bill that will see religious symbols disappear in most of the public sector. After a long debate, the bill was passed at 10:30 p.m. on June 16 with support from the Parti Québécois. The Quebec Liberal Party and Québec Solidaire voted against the bill. Bill 21 formally bans teachers, police officers, judges and many others from wearing items like hijabs, turbans, kippas, and crucifixes in the course of their duties. It also doubles down on pre-existing legislation that requires citizens to uncover their faces when accessing public services like municipal transit and the legal system.

The bill has been met with controversy and confusion. Critics condemn the bill as legalizing discrimination against religious minorities, and proponents see it as Quebec finally making good on its claims of being a secular society.

Why is this happening now?

Prohibiting religious symbols in the public sector was a Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) promise during last year’s election campaign, and they’ve always intended to table it as soon as possible. Premier François Legault sees Bill 21 as a fulfilment of voters’ wishes, claiming that the “vast majority” of Quebecers support his decision.

The new bill arrives at a tense time for Muslims in Quebec, as Islamophobic violence rises but acknowledgement of Islamophobia is low—including from Legault, who doesn’t think it’s a problem in the province. Community organizations, civil rights groups and opposition politicians have pointed out that while the bill theoretically treats all religious symbols as equal, by far the largest pool of people affected will be non-Christian women who wear scarves or veils, giving it a distinctly xenophobic and sexist edge. And while the CAQ won in Quebec, they’re not popular in Montreal, where the majority of Quebec’s religious minority population lives.

How will the law be enforced?

It’s not totally clear. Any wearable religious symbol is banned, but physical attributes—like hair and tattoos—are fine.

All new workers will be affected by the law, while current workers wearing religious symbols will be allowed to keep wearing them, but they’ll lose those protections if they get promoted or change jobs. Some institutions, including several school boards and municipal governments, have declared that they won’t be enforcing the ban if it goes into effect. The CAQ has said there will be “consequences” for this; it’s not evident what those might be.

Laws for citizens are different; women will be prohibited from covering their faces while accessing public services, ostensibly for security and verification reasons. It’s very possible that the only people enforcing this will be the public sector workers themselves. In short, it’s probably going to be a bit of a mess.

Speaking of, isn’t this all feeling a bit familiar? What’s behind Quebec’s preoccupation with religious symbols?

Religious symbols are a bugbear in Quebec politics because of the province’s professed secularist values, which stem from the separation of church and state in the ’70s. Limiting religious symbols in Quebec’s public authorities and services is consequently important to many political parties, and similar legislation has been proposed four times in recent memory (though it only became law once).

In 2017, the Quebec Liberal Party proposed similar legislation, Bill 62, which briefly went into effect before being halted by an injunction from a Superior Court judge who claimed that “irreparable harm [would] be caused to Muslim women” if it continued.

So what’s different this time?

Bill 21 invoked the notwithstanding clause from the Charter of Rights and Freedom, allowing the provincial government to override the Charter for a period of five years. That means it can’t be challenged like Bill 62 was, or at least not on the same grounds.

Legault is also making a concession to longstanding accusations of hypocrisy regarding Quebec’s tolerance of Christian symbolism above others by removing the crucifix from the National Assembly, a fixture since 1936. He believes the removal signifies a “compromise” to Quebecers and will help unite them over Bill 21.

What happens next?

Shortly before the vote, the CAQ introduced a surprise set of amendments, including a mechanism to impose disciplinary measures on employees who don’t obey the law—what critics immediately condemned as a form of “secularism police.”

Several groups, including the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the National Council of Canadian Muslims, plan a legal challenge.

The notwithstanding clause makes it more difficult to be contested in court, but not impossible, and some legally-minded types were already working on an alternative route before the bill was passed.