Secular Quebec revolts against religious symbol ban

by Julia A. Seymour
Posted 9/23/13, 03:18 pm

Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Jews, and even those with no religious affiliation united in protest Sept. 14 in Montreal, Quebec, after the province’s government proposed a ban on wearing religious garb in public workplaces.

“They’re trying to remove religious freedoms,” Harvey Levine, president of Quebec’s Jewish group B’nai Brith, told Reuters. “They’re trying to impose rules on religious values.” Catholic bishops in the province also criticized the ban, noting it would be especially hard on nuns and Muslim women.

Parti Quebecois (PQ), the separatist political party in the French-speaking province of 8 million, recently proposed the “charter of values” that would restrict the religious freedom of doctors, nurses, teachers, police, and other government employees. The secular proposal would prohibit hijabs, kippas, turbans, yarmulkes, and large crucifixes at work. Smaller religious symbols, such as a Christian cross on a necklace or the Star of David on a ring, would be allowed. Quebec, once dominated by the Catholic Church, is now one of the least religious provinces in Canada. 

The PQ charter outraged people of many faiths. Kathy Malas, a Montreal speech-language pathologist who wears a headscarf, said she has no plans to stop working or take it off if the charter becomes law.

“I would fight it, for sure,” she said. “For a government to dictate how people get dressed, it’s unreasonable to me.”

The PQ softened its position following the backlash, saying it is “open to propositions,” and asked Quebecers to suggest modifications, The Toronto Star reported.

The federal government has said it will seek the advice of the Department of Justice and suggested it could go to court if the proposal violates fundamental rights. Canada’s Globe and Mail interviewed a panel of legal experts and found that all nine opposed the charter on legal grounds. 

As debate rages on in Canada, a judge in Britain ruled that a Muslim defendant may stand trial wearing a face-covering veil, but must remove it when giving evidence. The case reignited a debate about Muslim veils that has flared across Europe, sparking protests and exacerbating religious tensions in several countries. Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said Parliament should not be “issuing edicts or laws” telling people what to wear.

In April 2011, France became the first country to ban face-covering veils, such as the niqab and full-body burqas, anywhere in public. An officially secular country, France had previously banned Muslim headscarves and other “ostentatious” religious symbols from classrooms. Belgium passed a similar ban the same year. In 2003, German federal courts ruled that states can prohibit teachers from wearing veils, and half of the country’s states have. 

But other European countries have stopped such bans. While more than a dozen cities in Spain outlawed niqabs and burqas in public, Spain’s Supreme Court ruled the laws unconstitutional in February. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Julia A. Seymour

Julia has worked as a writer in the Washington, D.C., area since 2005 and was a fall 2012 participant in a World Journalism Institute mid-career class conducted by WORLD editor in chief Marvin Olasky in Asheville, N.C. Follow Julia on Twitter @SteakandaBible.

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