ICYMI: A Quebec ban on religious symbols upends lives and careers

Raises visibility of Quebec not in a good way:

A Muslim lawyer who wears a head scarf has put aside her aspiration to become a public prosecutor.

A Sikh teacher with a turban moved about 2,800 miles from Quebec to Vancouver, calling herself a “refugee in her own country.”

And an Orthodox Jewish teacher who wears a head kerchief is worried that she could be blocked from a promotion.

Since the Quebec government in June banned schoolteachers, police officers, prosecutors and other public sector employees from wearing religious symbols while at work, people like these three women have been grappling with the consequences.

François Legault, the right-leaning Quebec premier, says the law — which applies to Muslim head scarves, Sikh turbans, Jewish skullcaps, Catholic crosses and other religious symbols — upholds the separation between religion and state, and maintains the neutrality of public sector workers. The government has stressed that the vast majority of Quebecers support the ban.

“I would not feel comfortable being faced with a judge or lawyer in court wearing a head scarf here, because I would worry about their neutrality,” said Radhia Ben Amor, a research coordinator at the University of Montreal, who is Muslim and said she moved from Tunisia to live in a more secular country.

But the law has prompted vocal protests and legal challenges, as well as condemnation by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Critics say it flouts freedom of religion, breaches constitutional protections and excludes minorities who choose to wear symbols of faith from vital professions. They also say implementing the law will be fraught because it can be hard to discern a religious symbolfrom a fashion accessory or nonreligious garb.

The English Montreal School Board said the law was forcing it to turn away qualified teachers. It said at least one teacher had removed her head scarf while at work to keep her job.

The Coalition Inclusion Québec — a group that includes Roman Catholics, Jews, Sikhs and Muslims — is challenging the law in court, along with three teachers, including two Muslims and a Roman Catholic.

Perri Ravon, a lawyer who has worked on two of the lawsuits against the ban, said that at least for now, “the law is disproportionately affecting Muslim women because the hijab is an outwardly visible religious symbol.” She noted that a Catholic cross was less conspicuous since it could be concealed in a blouse or a shirt while at work.

Nonetheless, the Catholic teacher named in one of the suits, Andréa Lauzon, who wears a visible cross and medallion of the Virgin Mary, said in court papers that her faith and identity were inextricably bound, and that her constitutional right to freedom of religion was being breached.

The ban has its roots in Quebec’s historic evolution into an abidingly secular society with a visceral distrust of religion, stemming from the so-called Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, when Quebecers revolted against dominance of the Roman Catholic Church.

Jean Duhaime, emeritus professor of religion at the University of Montreal, said that even before the recent law, the wearing of crosses in the public sector was stigmatized and discouraged in Quebec society.

He said Catholic opponents to the ban were in solidarity with other religious groups, adding that many proponents of the law saw Muslims wearing head scarves as “the phantom of religion reappearing in Quebec while viewing the hijab as an instrument of patriarchal domination.”

Here are four women whose lives and careers have been affected by the ban (see article).

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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