Bill 21: a matter of laicity, not secularism

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Pontiac Perspective by Peter Gauthier

There has been a lot of comments and discussion about Québec’s Bill 21
limiting the display of religious symbols by individuals in the public sector; teachers, medical specialists, municipal workers, and others as well as those

Pontiac Perspective by Peter Gauthier

There has been a lot of comments and discussion about Québec’s Bill 21
limiting the display of religious symbols by individuals in the public sector; teachers, medical specialists, municipal workers, and others as well as those
considered members of Québec’s civil service. In most of the discussions and reports, the term “secular”, or its grammatical derivatives is used. But this gives an inaccurate concept of what Bill 21 is attempting to do. To appreciate the full
significance of the legislation, three terms must be defined with some precision: secularism, reasonable accommodation, and laicity.
Between 1618 and 1648, Europe was convulsed in a religious-political war that was ended by the treaty of Westphalia, which extended equal political rights to Catholics and Protestants, including religious minorities. But each state had the right to designate an official “state” religion. It also introduced the term “secularization” relating to church property that was to be distributed to civil governments. This resulted in highlighting the issue of religious freedom. Many intellectuals, such as Locke (in England) and Voltaire
(in France) called for complete separation of church and state. The state was to guarantee religious freedom to all of its citizens without any indication of a preferred religion. The term “secular state” was used to describe this relationship between state and religion. Today, Canada’s constitution guarantees religious freedom and a secular state that does not give preference to any specific religious group.
While religious freedom is a right in Canada, the courts have maintained that there are no absolute rights – each rights claim must be evaluated within the broader social context. Thus, individuals who claim religious rights when they refuse to wear safety helmets in potentially dangerous environments because their religion requires a special head covering can be challenged. Ditto for religious claims
for refusing inoculations and/or blood transfusions in critical medical situations. For these cases, Canadian law accepts the principle of “reasonable accommodation”.  Here the burden of proof is on the employer, landlord, etc. to demonstrate how and when religious rights must be modified or overwritten.
Québec’s Bill 21 introduced another term in the definition and application of religious rights – laicity (in French laïcité). This term was first used in France in 1905 and referred to restrictions on the display of religious symbols. Québec’s bill prohibits certain people from wearing religious symbols while exercising their functions. The bill also amends the Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms to specify that persons must maintain proper regard for State laicity.
The significant point is that laicity is a restriction on religious expression beyond reasonable accommodation. Laicity redefines the concepts of religious freedom and secularism. This is contrary to a number of Supreme Court decisions that have upheld religious dress codes. Perhaps a more significant issue is why is laicity necessary? Is it mainly an attack on certain minority groups or is there some real requirement? In any event, debate on this issue should use the correct term “laicity”, not “secularism” and not “reasonable accommodation”. These terms have a very different meaning and have been tested in our courts. Laicity does not have this history and needs to be reviewed and challenged.