Quebec's religious neutrality bill draws heavy criticism

Published 19.10.2017 21:31
Updated 19.10.2017 21:32

Quebec legislators passed a religious neutrality bill Wednesday that will oblige citizens to uncover their faces while giving and receiving state services, triggering criticism that the law targets Muslim women.

Advocacy groups and academics have condemned the measure. The Canadian Council of Muslim Women's Samaa Elibyari said the law is disturbing because it focuses on Muslims. "It gives the impression that we are a problem," Elibyari said.

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre has criticized the bill and said the province has no right to tell city workers what to wear. He also worried about employees like bus drivers telling riders they have to remove anything that covers their faces before boarding a municipal bus.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims said it is "studying its options" with regard to a possible court challenge.

The attorney general of Ontario province, Yasir Naqvi, said his province didn't plan any similar measure and criticized Quebec's action.

"We respect people's right to express their religious beliefs and we disagree with the law Quebec has brought in and we will never introduce such a law in Ontario," Naqvi said.

The new law has two basic components: It bans the wearing of face coverings for people giving or receiving a service from the state and it offers a framework outlining how authorities should grant accommodation requests based on religious beliefs. While the bill doesn't specifically mention specific clothing, it would prohibit the burka and niqab when people interact with the state, but it doesn't extend to other religious symbols.

The bill was introduced in 2015 but was shelved after the shooting at a Quebec City mosque, where six Muslims died while at prayer Jan. 29.

The government wants to keep deep separation between state and religion - to reduce the presence of conspicuous religious symbols in public. It is considered a fundamental Quebec value that the state not promote religion.

Premier Philippe Couillard said he expects some people to challenge the law, but he defended the legislation as necessary for reasons related to communication, identification and security.

"The principle to which I think a vast majority of Canadians by the way, not only Quebecers, would agree upon is that public services should be given and received with an open face," he said. "I speak to you, you speak to me. I see your face. You see mine. As simple as that."

Quebec Justice Minister Stephanie Vallee said guidelines on how to apply the law, notably criteria touching on reasonable accommodation, would be phased in by next June 30 after consultations. Provisions regarding daycare workers will kick in by next summer to allow educators to get training, but the majority of the face-covering provisions will take effect immediately.

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