Of Course Not

The Québec government’s proposal for a “Charter of Québec Values” is now official. It’s not much of a proposal, actually ― there is no bill, and there isn’t going to be for months yet ― but we do have a fancy website on which the government explains what the Charter will do. (The English version isn’t all in English, but I don’t suppose one can expect better from the PQ government.)

The highlight proposal is, as had long been known, a prohibition on “conspicuous religious symbols” ― Jewish skullcaps, Muslim veils of any kind, Sikh Turbans, and large crosses, though not small ones (the government isn’t saying how large is large and how small is small) ― for any government employees, as well as those of public schools, public or subsidized childcare centres, universities, and hospitals. Some of the institutions affected (universities, hospitals, and municipalities) would have the right to exempt themselves from the application of this measure for renewable periods of five years. Others (notably schools) would not. Québec’s “heritage” would also be exempt from this measure ― so the rather conspicuous crucifix hanging in the National Assembly will stay right where it is. (There is no ban on prayer in municipal councils either ― though the government doesn’t even pretend to have a reason for that.)

Many nasty things have been said and will be said about this project. I will say some too here in the coming days. (UPDATE: Come to think of it, I have already been saying nasty things about it in my last post.) But, for the moment, I will start with a constitutional analysis, hopefully a relatively dispassionate one. La Presse has one here, concluding that the constitutionality of the government’s project is “far from certain”; the CBC, after much equivocation, concludes that “[w]hen the debate centres around religion, it’s fair to say the devil is in the details.” For my part though, I see little place for nuance. The ban on “conspicuous” religious symbols is obviously unconstitutional.

There can be no question that it is a breach of the Charter’s guarantee of “freedom of conscience and religion” (s. 2(a)). As Justice Dickson (as he then was) said in R. v. Big M Drug Mart,  [1985] 1 S.C.R. 295,

[t]he essence of the concept of freedom of religion is the right to entertain such religious beliefs as a person chooses, the right to declare religious beliefs openly and without fear of hindrance or reprisal, and the right to manifest religious belief by worship and practice or by teaching and dissemination.

And it does not matter whether some “official” interpretation of a religion says that “conspicuous” symbols are not mandatory. As the Supreme Court held in Syndicat Northcrest v. Amselem, 2004 SCC 47, [2004] 2 S.C.R. 551, if a person sincerely believes that she must wear the veil, or that he must wear the turban, then she or he has a constitutional right to do so.

Like all other Charter rights, the freedom of religion is “subject to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society” (s. 1). This means that restrictions on religious liberty must have some “pressing and substantial” objective, that they must be “rationally connected” to that objective, that they must be as limited as possible to achieve that objective, and that their overall positive effects must outweigh the negative ones. The ban on religious symbols will not pass this test.

The objectives invoked by the Québec government ― the need for common rules, state neutrality, and equality of men and women ― sound important enough. In any case, the Supreme Court has almost always been very deferential to governments at that stage of the test. The same is true of the “rational connection” stage. Yet here already, the government’s case might begin to crumble. It is by no means clear, for instance, how gender equality is served by prohibiting not only the veil (which even Bernard Drainville, the author of the government’s proposals, recognizes isn’t necessarily a symbol of oppression), but also the yarmulke and the turban, or indeed how banning Muslim women from the public service will advance the cause of their equality. Still, it is likely enough that courts will find that these measures are rationally connected at least to the objective of state neutrality, and also to that of having common rules.

The ban will, however, fail the “minimal impairment” stage of the test. Common rules, of course, can be permissive as well as restrictive. A blanket ban on religious symbols is by no means the least restrictive measure that can achieve this aim. As for state neutrality, it is important to note that the government, which bears the burden of proof under s. 1 of the Charter, has no evidence at all of any problems with the neutrality of civil servants or state institutions. (Much like Stockwell Day, who justified the federal government’s “tough on crime” legislative agenda by an alleged increase in “unreported crime,” Mr. Drainville claims that people are too reluctant to report such incidents.) The Supreme Court has sometimes “relied on logic, reason and some social science evidence in the course of the justification analysis” (Harper v. Canada (Attorney General), 2004 SCC 33, [2004] 1 S.C.R. 827, at par. 78), but, as Chief Justice McLachlin wrote in Sauvé v. Canada (Chief Electoral Officer), 2002 SCC 68, [2002] 3 S.C.R. 519, at par. 18, “one must be wary of stereotypes cloaked as common sense, and of substituting deference for the reasoned demonstration required by s. 1.” And the Québec government doesn’t even have the fig leaf of social science evidence which the federal government had in Harper. In addition, the blanket ban proposed by the government is overbroad, because it applies even to state employees who are not in contact with the public or could not be said, by any reasonable person, to represent the authority of the state (say school janitors or hospital cooks). At the same time, the fact that the government is willing to make exceptions for many employees suggests that a blanket ban isn’t actually necessary. In short, I fail to see how the government might succeed in demonstrating that the ban is “minimally impairing” of its employees’ rights.

Finally, when it comes to balancing the salutary and the deleterious effects of the policy, the latter clearly prevail. Because there is no real problem with a lack, or even a perception of a lack, of neutrality in state institutions. Furthermore, because of its patchwork nature, the ban achieves very little, except symbolically. On the other hand, those who challenge it will have no difficulty in demonstrating that its negative effects, notably in forcing people to choose between their faith and their employment ― a choice that will lead to people being forced out of their jobs ― will be considerable.

Thus it is quite clear to me that the ban on state employees wearing religious symbols is an unconstitutional violation of religious freedom. I am also pretty confident that it is a breach of equality rights protected by s. 15 of the Charter, because it has a disproportionate effect on the members of those religions whose symbols are “conspicuous,” which happens to exclude the numerically and politically dominant groups in Québec (the Catholics and the non-religious). Its burden falls squarely on minorities who have faced a history of discrimination, and the courts do not look kindly on such things.

The Québec government insists that it will not use the “notwithstanding” clause if and when it enacts the “Charter of values”, because it is confident that its constitutionality will be upheld. It will not be. Of course not.

UPDATE: Pour ceux qui voudraient lire une analyse en français, je recommande cet article de Radio-Canada explorant la question avec le doyen de la faculté de droit civil de l’Université d’Ottawa, Sébastien Grammond.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law at the University of Reading, in the United Kingdom. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and did graduate work at the NYU School of Law. I then taught in New Zealand before taking up my current position at Reading.

6 thoughts on “Of Course Not”

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