The struggle in balancing civil liberties and upholding ‘laïcité’ within a multicultural society.

by Desiree Menezes, Staff Writer 

Secularism: a principle upholding that the role of religion should be minimized within the public sphere and separated from the civil affairs of the state. This principle stands as a crucial pillar in most democratic nations. It expresses the idea that the law should be conducted without any influence from religious doctrines, instead focusing on universal human rights and equality. As globalization suffuses throughout the world, cultural diversity is increasing in different nations, sparking global debates on religious freedoms. In an attempt to promote social harmony, secularism has emerged as the default shield for many governments, while still respecting the private practice of these different faiths. 

How do we reach a balance between secularism and religious accommodation within the Canadian public sphere?

Bill 21

Bill 21 is Quebec’s secularism law that embodies the French principle of Laïcité, which restricts religious manifestations in public. The core facets of this principle are the religious neutrality of the state, the equality of all citizens, and the freedom of conscience of its citizens. 

The most controversial tenet of this law is that it prohibits many public servants in Quebec from wearing religious symbols – such as crucifixes, hijabs, or yarmulkes – on the job. Critics argue that it infringes on these individuals’ “freedom of conscience and religion”, as declared by Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR). 

Although initially being ratified in 2019, the Court of Appeals recently upheld the law to confirm the secular status of the province. The bill invokes Section 33 or the ‘notwithstanding clause’ which overrides any challenge to the violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  

Image: Sticker in response to the Quebec ban on religious symbols enacted by Bill 21, seen in 2019 | Obtained via commons.wikimedia.org

The Debate

“Bill 21 is a horrendous law that violates human rights and harms people who are already marginalized.” (CCLA, 2024)

According to dissenters, the law discriminates against those who manifest their beliefs through their attire. For many, their religion is an extension of their identity, and so, the law forces them into the position of having to decide between upholding their religion or their profession. They cite the instrumentalization of Muslim women by the provincial government to advance their agenda such that it presents as an example of Orientalism masquerading as progressive feminism. For instance, Isabelle Charest, who had previously served as Quebec’s minister of the status of women, stated that the hijab is a symbol of oppression and “is not something that women should be wearing” (CBC,  2019). However, feminism does not restrict the autonomy that women have to make choices pertaining to their bodies and beliefs.  

As a consequence, this law plays on existing anxieties towards minority groups, further isolating them from society. Miriam Tayler, lead researcher at the Association for Canadian Studies, conducted a study on the provincial attitudes towards the law. She stated that “we end up with a situation where the malaise of the observer trumps the deep convictions of the person wearing the religious symbols” (CBC 2022).  This legislation has further incensed the prejudices, which are rooted in ignorance as these lawmakers often lack a deeper understanding of the religious implications of these objects.

On the other hand, Premier Francois Legault stated that Bill 21 is a “very reasonable bill”, (CCLA, 2024), elaborating that there should be a distinction between public and private practices of religion. Proponents of secularism have linked the concept closely to individual freedoms, stating that it permits the free practice of religion without interference from the state. The caveat is that it should not spill over to the public sphere so that each individual is responsible for their commitment to their faith. 

While some people view culture and religion as an addendum to their individuality, this interpretation of secularism demands conformity to the public. People argue that the workplace should be free from overt expressions of religious beliefs, as they can be inhibitory. Advocates of this stance argue that the workplace is inherently about collaborating on shared goals and tasks, which should be the primary focus. The expression of a multitude of beliefs may create room for potential conflicts or discomfort between different communities.  

Secularism within Universities 

The University of Toronto, in its Statement on Human Rights, “acknowledges that it conducts its teaching, research and other activities in the context of a richly diverse society” (U of T, 2o12).

An alternative interpretation of secularism is not neutrality, but rather an active effort to ensure the inclusion of different faiths. Pluralism honors the existence of all religions as equal, thereby avoiding the tyranny of the majority towards minority religions. This approach champions respect towards individual religious convictions, promoting critical thinking and diversity of thought among students and faculty. Respect for persons requires equal space for people to exercise their conscientious commitments, whether or not others approve of what they do in that space. 

The University often poses a series of obstacles for minority religious communities to adhere to their practices. For instance, some dining halls may not provide kosher or halal options, which limits the choices for food that these individuals may have. Students in rural campuses also may not have access to places to pray or engage in religious discourse with others. 

In Trinity College, the Office of the Dean of Students recently sent out an email with a link to a survey to offer food suggestions or request accommodations in the dining hall for those observing Ramadan. This effective compromise allows students to fulfill academic commitments in tandem with observing spiritual obligations.

The Next Steps 

Evidently, the next course of action would be to bring Bill 21 in front of the Supreme Court of Canada, should they wish to hear it. The polarization of this issue could permeate to other provinces within the country and become a national debate. 

Freedom of religion is a human right. Workplaces should theoretically accommodate certain practices to encourage a diverse and comfortable work environment. However, there should be some limitations as to what is considered reasonable accommodation. 

Hence, in navigating the intricacies of Bill 21, a nuanced compromise could provide a solution that respects civil liberties, while also maintaining pluralism within society. In doing so, we preserve the threads of harmony that form the collective fabric of democracy.


Works Cited

  • Bill 21. CCLA. (2023, November 21). https://ccla.org/major-cases-and-reports/bill-21/ 
  • CBC/Radio Canada. (2019, February 6). Muslim headscarf a symbol of oppression insists Quebec’s minister for the status of women | CBC news. CBCnews. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/isabelle-charest-hijab-muslim-1.5007889#:~:text=Quebec’s%20newly%20appointed%20minister%20responsible,that%20women%20should%20be%20wearing.%22 
  • CBC/Radio Canada. (2022, August 10). New research shows Bill 21 having a “devastating” impact on religious minorities in Quebec | CBC News. CBCnews. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/bill-21-impact-religious-minorities-survey-1.6541241 
  • Human rights, statement on [July 12, 2012]. The Office of the Governing Council. (2023, January 9). https://governingcouncil.utoronto.ca/secretariat/policies/human-rights-statement-july-12-2012 
  • United Nations. (1948). Universal declaration of human rights. United Nations. https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights#:~:text=Article%2018,%2C%20practice%2C%20worship%20and%20observance. 

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