The Religious Neutrality of the State on the Agenda Again

No matter what government will lead Quebec, religious neutrality of the state seems to be common ground among the political parties. Yet the media and the rest of Canada don’t seem to make much of it unless it is brought up by the Parti Quebecois. Since the current Liberal government introduced Bill 62, An Act to foster adherence to state religious neutrality and, in particular, to provide a framework for religious accommodation requests in certain bodies, in the national assembly on June 20, 2015, not much has been said about it. However, when the parti Quebecois tabled a similar bill in 2013, outrage was heard from lawyers, the public and other stakeholders all across Canada.

About Bill 62

The Liberals’ proposed religious neutrality law, like the PQ’s Charter of Secular Values before it, aims to establish measures to promote respect for the religious neutrality of the government (the state).

It specifically provides that government and public agency staff should exercise religious neutrality in the exercise of their functions, which implies not favouring or discriminating against a person because of membership or not in a specific religion. Unlike the PQ’s proposed law, Bill 62 doesn’t mention dress codes of certain religious observances. I guess that makes the bill more acceptable. It seems to give the media less to talk about.

The Bill would exempt staff in government agencies that offer spiritual care services or are responsible for providing religious education.

While avoiding reference to the clothing of any particular religion, Bill 62 does reiterate the previous bill’s requirement that government staff not cover their faces when performing their work, unless the work requires it.

Well! This may be subtler, but the effect is the same: all face coverings for religious purposes will not be allowed while working for the government. Many people will be forced to choose between their jobs and their creed. Many others who insist on wearing conspicuous religious symbols will be eliminated from the public service job pool.

Bill 62 also provides that people receiving in-person service from government staff must have their faces exposed.

The Bill does establish conditions in which accommodations for religious reasons may be granted and the specific elements that must be considered when dealing with certain accommodation requests. However, the government must refuse to accommodate if, given the context, reasons regarding security, identification or the required level of communication warrant it.

The wording may be different, but I don’t see the difference between this bill and the one tabled by the Parti Quebecois, which caused so much outrage. This new Bill would still make it mandatory for individuals to have their faces exposed when giving or receiving services from the government and public sector.

The Bill further specifies that the state’s religious neutrality would not apply to iconic places, names or items associated with the cultural heritage of Quebec, including religious cultural heritage, which reflects its historical course. Thus, the crosses at the national assembly or atop Mount Royal will remain, no matter what people say about a double standard!

Special measures would apply to educational childcare services to ensure that admission does not require children learn a belief, a dogma or practice of a specific religion. In addition, organized activities by subsidized childcare providers would have to be free from religious or dogmatic characteristics. Thus, Bill 62 would still require the minister responsible for the Educational Childcare Act to develop an implementation policy for institutions that provide childcare or subsidized home childcare providers under the Act.

Bill 62 and Bill 60: same intention, same effect

In 2013, immediately after the PQ tabled Bill 60, the Charter affirming the values of state secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests, the federal government stated it would file a court challenge on grounds that the charter was discriminatory and incompatible with Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Quebec’s own charter of rights.

This time around, Canada’s Multiculturalism Minister, Tim Uppal, weighed in on Bill 62 by saying:

“We broadly support Quebec’s legislation regarding the uncovering of faces for giving and receiving public services.”

Uppal added that the federal Conservatives are thinking of tabling a similar bill:

“Our government will be moving forward in the coming days with legislation with respect to the face coverings at citizenship ceremonies, and we will consider what other measures may be necessary.”

However, you know what happened: an election was called, stalling progress on any federal religious neutrality law.


Public consultations on this model of secularism are currently being held, but again, I ask… where is the outrage we heard two years ago over the PQ’s charter? Why the silence today? Is it simply because this Bill does not explicitly demand restraint in religious expression for public servants, including symbols and clothing?

Some say Bill 62 is more acceptable because it does not go as far as Bill 60. For instance, the public seems to think the new Bill does not ban all religious symbols. That’s not clear. What is clear is that the difference between the two Bills is very subtle. One is more direct and the other hides its true intention. And the effect will be the same: institutionalized discrimination in the name of state neutrality.

I will take direct anytime!

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