Bill 62 – a barrier to religious freedom

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Pontiac Perspective  Peter J. Gauthier


Pontiac Perspective  Peter J. Gauthier

When they were in opposition, the Liberal Party of Quebec strongly opposed a bill introduced by the Parti Québécois to restrict the display of religious symbols by persons in public service. However, since the government changed in the last Quebec election, the new Liberal government has introduced its own version of restrictions on the display of religious symbols. Bill 62 states “religious neutrality” as its objective. However, a close reading of the bill raises several disturbing questions.
Consider the following case. The crucifix is an accepted symbol of the Christianity. I knew a woman who wore a small crucifix as a piece of jewellery and whose work place would fall under the list of public bodies listed in the bill. This woman was not particularly religious – she wore the crucifix because it had belonged to her grandmother and later her mother.  It reminded her of women who had influenced her life – not her religious views. But, under Bill 62, she would be in violation of the law.
More seriously, the bill does not define religion, nor religious symbols. It does, however, mention that face coverings (other than for work safety or health reasons) are not permitted. This is presumably aimed at a small number of Muslim women who choose to wear a face covering in public. The only result of this provision will be to make those Muslim women more isolated and divorced from society.
One other example of the inconsistency of the bill is a provision for certain exemptions. In the introduction, the bill specifies that the measures it introduces must not be interpreted as affecting the emblematic and toponymic elements of Québec’s cultural heritage, in particular its religious cultural heritage, that testify to its history. Consider the flag of Quebec. It is known as the Fleurdelisé – a white cross on a blue background with four fleurs-de-lis (white lilies).  The cross is the defining symbol of Christianity, the lilies represent the purity of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and blue is the color of the garments worn by the Virgin Mary. Could any flag bear more religious symbols? To mis-quote George Orwell – all religious symbols are forbidden, but some are more forbidden than others.
The only certainty of Bill 62 is that, if passed, it will be challenged in the courts under both the Canadian Charter and the Quebec Charter which guarantee religious freedom.  Would it not be better for Quebec to endorse a bill that calls for an open society where personal encounters with the sacred are respected, where
freedom to worship (or not) is appreciated as fundamental to a civil society and
diversity is seen as a strength?