Bill 21 and the Search for True Religious Neutrality

The saga of Quebec’s Bill 21, An Act respecting the laicity of the State, trudges on. In December, the Quebec Court of Appeal upheld a Superior Court decision declining to suspend certain parts of the law – which prohibits front-line public employees from displaying overt religious symbols while on duty – until a full application for judicial review pursuant to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms could be heard. The applicants who sought the suspension claim that Bill 21 violates (among other things) the guarantees of freedom of religion and the right to equality respectively protected by sections 2(a) and 15 of the Charter. An appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada is expected to be heard on the suspension issue. Meanwhile, the Superior Court has ordered that three other Charter challenges which have been launched in the interim be heard at the same time as the original application for judicial review.

The Quebec government insists that Bill 21 is grounded in the constitutional principle of the religious neutrality of the state. Such descriptions, however, fundamentally misstate what religious neutrality ought to require of state actors. At its core, Bill 21 is inconsistent with the trajectory of religious neutrality in Canadian public law. Granted, this principle has been subject to conflicting scholarly and judicial visions of what the state’s constitutional obligations are vis-à-vis religion. Yet as I argue in this post, religious neutrality, holistically and purposively understood, ensures that the state treats religious adherents fairly by preserving equal space for their participation in public life.

Canadian conceptions of religious neutrality tend to fall along a spectrum. At one end we have those who see religious neutrality as essentially privatizing all aspects of religious belief. We might describe this as closed religious neutrality, to borrow language used by Janet Epp Buckingham. In its most extreme form, this type of neutrality seeks to purge any and all expressions of religious conviction from the public square. Only secular or irreligious worldviews can inform public discourse, and the state is prevented from even indirectly facilitating religious expression. Richard Moon describes this approach to religious neutrality as essentially relegating matters of religious faith to the private sphere, subject to a view that “[s]tate neutrality is possible only if religion can be treated as simply a private matter — separable from the civic concerns addressed by the state” (para 4).

On the other end of the spectrum we have what I call inclusive religious neutrality. Unlike closed approaches to religious neutrality, inclusive religious neutrality recognizes that the state is only one of numerous actors in the public square and has no jurisdiction to exclude religious perspectives from public life. Under this conception of religious neutrality, the state is permitted and even encouraged to preserve and create positive public space for religious adherents (such as, for example, by subsidizing charitable religious activities which pursue a common or public good) so long as it does so in an even-handed manner and does not privilege one religious group to the exclusion of others.

Inclusive religious neutrality affirms that the state is not competent to arbitrate religious debates, even where these disputes have public implications. This is subject to the obvious caveat that the state will always have a vested interested in curbing or discouraging objectively harmful religious practices. But beyond this otherwise narrow exception, it is rarely appropriate for the state to act in a way that has the effect of promoting or stigmatizing certain religious beliefs or practices. Inclusive religious neutrality is thus reinforced by equality-enhancing values which recognize that the state’s uneven support for certain beliefs suggests that those who do not adhere to these beliefs are less deserving of public citizenship.

Although not necessarily identified as such, the constitutional commitment to equality was one of the driving forces behind Chief Justice Brian Dickson’s oft-quoted decision in R v Big M Drug Ltd Mart, [1985] 1 SCR 295 [“Big M”], the first Charter-era ruling from the Supreme Court on freedom of religion. While the Chief Justice recognized that the guarantee of freedom of religion is grounded in principles of individual liberty, his reasons also highlighted why explicitly religious laws (in that case legislation requiring businesses to observe the Christian Sabbath) will run afoul of the Charter, noting that the “theological content of … legislation remains as a subtle and constant reminder to religious minorities within the country of their differences with, and alienation from, the dominant religious culture” (para 97).

On this point, Bruce Ryder has written at length about how the Canadian constitutional commitment to substantive equality intersects with the right of religious adherents to participate in public life as equal citizens. As Ryder explains:

[T]he Canadian conception of equal religious citizenship is not confined to a private or religious sphere of belief, worship and practice. Instead, a religious person’s faith is understood as a fundamental aspect of his or her identity that pervades all aspects of life. … They have a right to participate equally in the various dimensions of public life without abandoning the beliefs and practices their faith requires them to observe. In contrast, some other liberal democracies are more likely to insist that citizens participate in public institutions on terms that conform to the state promotion of secularism. On this view, equal religious citizenship is confined to the private sphere, and must give way to the secular requirements of public citizenship. (2)

Inclusive religious neutrality, as I have described it here, is inextricably tied to Ryder’s articulation of the concept of equal religious citizenship. Religious neutrality presumes that religion is no more or less immutable than the other grounds of discrimination enumerated in section 15 of the Charter. This is to say that religion is “constructively immutable”, which means that it is just as impermissible for the state to discriminate against someone because of their religious beliefs or identity as it is to discriminate on the basis of immutable grounds such as race or gender. While this point may seem trite, laws and policies like Bill 21 are a sobering reminder of the tendency of many state actors to treat religious belief as something which can be readily detached from a person’s core identity.

It should be clear by now that religious neutrality is more than a derivative duty imposed on the state by some combination of sections 2(a) and 15 of the Charter. Indeed, it would be a critical mistake to conclude that religious neutrality begins and ends with the text of the Constitution. The dyadic guarantees of religious freedom and religious equality, as the Supreme Court affirmed in Saumur v Quebec (City), [1953] 2 SCR 299 [“Saumur”], are “a fundamental principle of our civil polity” (342). Religious neutrality is thus a pre-existing, foundational and enforceable legal principle which explains why the Charter protects religious adherents. Without a proper understanding of what religious neutrality demands, there is no principled reason why the state should be prevented from pursing an ecclesiastical agenda or discriminating against religious adherents.

Granted, the very idea of religious neutrality, whether closed or inclusive, is ultimately a conceit. From a philosophical perspective, policy-making is a fundamentally normative undertaking. Whenever the state implements or pursues a given policy – no matter how benign – it is making a statement about what society ought to look like. Such declarations are informed by assumptions about what morality and justice demand. In this way, Benjamin Berger explains, “religion will have much to say about matters of broad public policy import”, in that the state’s adoption “of positions on such matters will … involve position-taking on matters of deep religious interest” (772).

When viewed from an inclusive perspective, however, the state’s duty of religious neutrality does not bestow the state with a “secularizing mission” – quite the opposite. Secularism, like all worldviews, is built on assumptions about divinity, society and what it means to be human. In other words, secularism is itself a religion. Although this may seem counterintuitive, religion, functionally defined, does not require faith in a higher deity or even the supernatural. As American political theologian Jonathan Leeman writes, “any and every position that a person might adopt in the political sphere relies upon a certain conception of human beings, their rights and their obligations toward one another, creation and God” (81). In this sense, Leeman explains, religion “determines … the worldview lens through which we come to hold our political commitments.” (Id) Thus, everyone is, to some degree, religious. This is why an inclusive approach to religious neutrality seeks to ensure that the state does not directly or indirectly support irreligious worldviews over religious ones. If irreligiosity is just another form of religion, then official state support for irreligion will favour some religious adherents (namely secularists, atheists and agonistics) over others.

Since the advent of the Charter, the Supreme Court has trended toward the inclusive conception of religious neutrality which I have outlined above. As noted, Dickson CJC’s reasons in Big M prevent majoritarian religions from excluding minority religious groups from public life. In the decades since this landmark ruling, the Supreme Court has articulated with increasing precision what the state’s duty of religious neutrality entails. The Court’s majority ruling in S.L. v Commission scolaire des Chênes, 2012 SCC 7 [“S.L.”] is particularly instructive, in which Deschamps J found that neutrality is realized when “the state neither favours nor disfavours any particular religious belief, that is, when it shows respect for all postures toward religion, including that of having no religious beliefs whatsoever” (para 32).

Justice Gascon’s majority reasons in the Supreme Court’s subsequent ruling in Mouvement laïque québécois v Saguenay (City), 2015 SCC 16 take Deschamps J’s observations from S.L. even further. A truly neutral public space, Gascon J noted, “does not mean the homogenization of private players in that space” since “[n]eutrality is required of institutions and the state, not individuals” (para 74). Religious neutrality thus protects the “freedom and dignity” of believers and non-believers alike, and in doing so promotes and enhances Canadian diversity (Id).

Bill 21 is a quintessential example of how a closed approach to religious neutrality excludes religious minorities from the full benefits of public citizenship, contrary to Gascon J’s vision of “a neutral public space that is free of discrimination and in which true freedom to believe or not believe is enjoyed by everyone equally” (Id). Despite what its proponents may argue, Bill 21 does not preserve a religiously neutral public space, but instead forces front-line public employees to give the appearance of irreligiosity to the extent that they want to keep their jobs. The Quebec government’s decree that these employees hide their faith-based identities while undertaking their public duties is actually an insistence that they adopt completely alien religious identities if they are to participate fully in public life. Such a policy is anathema to an inclusive conception of religious neutrality.

None of this is to say that the Charter challenges which have been launched against Bill 21 are certain or even likely to succeed. The Quebec government’s invocation of the section 33 override – allowing Bill 21 to operate notwithstanding violations of sections 2(a) and 15 of the Charter – makes the outcome of any application for judicial review uncertain. Yet as others (including on this blog) have observed, there are a number of compelling arguments to be made that section 33 does not insulate Bill 21 against infringements of section 28 (i.e. the equal application of the Charter to men and women) or violations of the federal division of legislative powers.

In a similar vein, a strong argument can be made that section 33 cannot be invoked to insulate Bill 21 against violations of religious neutrality, since this constitutional duty pre-dates and exists independent of the Charter. This is not to say that religious neutrality is an unwritten constitutional principle, per se, since unwritten principles cannot be used to fill in perceived gaps in the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Charter. The unwritten constitutional principles which have been recognized by the Supreme Court (namely federalism, democracy, constitutionalism and the rule of law, and the protection of minorities) differ from religious neutrality in that the latter is grounded in specific pre-Charter constitutional protections which directly inform enforceable Charter guarantees. To use section 33 to override the state’s duty of religious neutrality would be, in the language of Saumur, to circumvent “an admitted principle” of Canadian public law (342). Advocates for the rights of religious minorities can only hope the courts will agree.

For a more thorough examination of the development of the principle of religious neutrality in Canadian law, see my paper “Inclusive Religious Neutrality: Rearticulating the Relationship Between Sections 2(a) and 15 of the Charter”, (2019) 91 SCLR (2d) 219.

Day Eight: Anna Su

University of Toronto

There are many reasons for judges (especially at the highest court) to write separate dissenting opinions. The first, in my view, is that it sets forth clear positions on the major legal issues of the day, ready to be taken on anew in a future judgment. In that sense, it is the Supreme Court that becomes the venue for important legal debate, especially for novel constitutional questions. It should not only be the task of academics to recognize and reflect on these significant controversies and to lead the intellectual discussion. A second, more canonical, reason for dissents is that some judge might perceive its truth somewhere down the road and it becomes law in the future. Of course, it might not always happen. But at the very least, at that moment, the possibility that judges can dissent can somewhat improve the majority opinion. Or at least one would hope. I chose these three opinions because they 1) clearly identify a recurring debate in constitutional law, and 2) I hope they could be a prompt for future justices to reconsider how they look at cases in that particular subject.

Justices Binnie and Lebel in Chaoulli v Quebec (Attorney General), 2005 SCC 35, [2005] 1 SCR 791

“This does not mean that the courts are well placed to perform the required surgery.”

In their joint dissent in Chaoulli, Justices Binnie and Lebel emphasized a minimalist role for the judiciary in deciding the question of whether the prevailing single-tier health care system in Quebec was compliant with the s.7 guarantee under the Charter. Both justices would have upheld the Quebec prohibition on private health insurance as they questioned the appropriateness of the court passing judgment on what constitutes “reasonable health services”. The dissent is persuasive in holding the dispositive effect of the phrase “principle of fundamental justice” – the bread and butter component of s.7 litigation – under close scrutiny. Indeed, as the dissent went, a legislative policy cannot be deemed arbitrary just because we may disagree with the decision. The dissent acknowledged that the existence of waiting times is certainly a public concern and that a two-tier health care system would have a negative impact on the integrity, functioning and viability of the public system, but it expressed skepticism that this is within the purview of courts to evaluate.

Over the course of its s.7 jurisprudence, the SCC has given the phrase “principles of fundamental justice” substantive content by defining them as principles against arbitrariness, vagueness, overbreadth and gross disproportionality. Arbitrariness in particular, refers to the relationship between the means adopted and the policy objective. The dissent shows the indeterminacy of this standard. In contrast to the characterization of the majority, the dissent showed an equally plausible and clear relation between the prohibition against private health insurance and the preservation of access to a health system based on need.

There will be many more cases to be litigated under s.7. A prominent one in the offing is the recently filed suit by minors against the federal government for violating their s.7 rights to life, liberty and security of the person for, among others, its failure to curb greenhouse gas emissions that is incompatible with a stable climate system. The question of whether courts are the right venues to seek relief thus remains evergreen. The broad themes of the Chaoulli dissent illustrate the limitations and possibilities of s.7 case law.

Justice Abella in Alberta v Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony, 2009 SCC 37, [2009] 2 SCR 567

Justice Abella’s spirited dissent began with a succinct encapsulation of what the s.2(a) doctrinal framework is about. Freedom of religion is an important constitutional value. Accordingly, there is a high threshold to be met by any infringing measure. It is a very good illustration of what it means to take freedom of religion seriously in a pluralistic society, regardless of the final outcome. In this case, the controversy was whether the Hutterites were entitled to an accommodation from the mandatory photo requirement in drivers’ licenses on the grounds that their religion forbade them from having their photos willingly taken. Justice Abella laid out the drastic harm to the constitutional rights of the Hutterites, absent such exemption, since it would not allow them to maintain the autonomous and insular nature of their communities without any driving privileges.

This point is greatly appreciated especially in juxtaposition with how the majority opinion disposes of this argument, which suggested that the Hutterites could avail of third-party transport for necessary services. In his landmark essay Nomos and Narrative, the late legal scholar Robert Cover wrote about the jurispathic function of courts—that is, their ability to quash other commitments and forms of interpretation when they are incompatible with national norms. Religious freedom cases brought before courts often highlight this ability. In such cases, courts assert one law, often the state’s, to the rejection of all others. I am always reminded of this when I read opinions that make short shrift of the constitutional promise to celebrate pluralism and its guarantee to protect religious liberty. Justice Abella’s dissent in Hutterian is not one of them.

The dissent also fleshes out what proportionality stricto sensu in the Oakes test looks like. As the majority points out, this stage has not often been used in Charter cases.

Justice L’Heureux-Dubé in R v Van der Peet, [1996] 2 SCR 507

The dissent by Justice L’Heureux-Dubé in Van der Peet offers an explanation of why the ideal of legal reconciliation (one of the many dimensions of reconciliation) between Canada and its indigenous population remains an aspiration, rather than reality. Professor John Borrows, for instance, still criticizes the originalist framework for proving aboriginal rights that Van der Peet has ushered in and urges lawyers and academics to reject history as the sole determinant of legal analysis under s.35. But in 1996, Justice L’Heureux-Dubé already rejected the frozen rights approach she saw the majority opinion to be taking, and emphasized that “the notion of aboriginal rights must be open to fluctuation, change and evolution, not only from one native group to another, but also over time.”

In particular, her approach to interpreting aboriginal rights rejects the reliance

on the proclamation of sovereignty by the British imperial power as the “cut-off” for the development of aboriginal practices, traditions and customs overstates the impact of European influence on aboriginal communities. Taking British sovereignty as the turning point in aboriginal culture assumes that everything that the natives did after that date was not sufficiently significant and fundamental to their culture and social organization.  This is no doubt contrary to the perspective of aboriginal people as to the significance of European arrival on their rights.

Moreover, “crystallizing aboriginal practices, traditions and customs at the time of British sovereignty creates an arbitrary date for assessing existing aboriginal rights”.

And finally, Justice L’Heureux-Dubé writes:

the “frozen right” approach imposes a heavy and unfair burden on the natives: the claimant of an aboriginal right must prove that the aboriginal practice, tradition or custom is not only sufficiently significant and fundamental to the culture and social organization of the aboriginal group, but has also been continuously in existence, but as the Chief Justice stresses, even if interrupted for a certain length of time, for an indeterminate long period of time prior to British sovereignty. This test embodies inappropriate and unprovable assumptions about aboriginal culture and society. It forces the claimant to embark upon a search for a pristine aboriginal society and to prove the continuous existence of the activity for “time immemorial” before the arrival of Europeans.


Dissents in Canadian constitutional law opinions are far from being nasty “body slams,” as Dahlia Litwick describes dissenting opinions in the US Supreme Court, but they fulfill similar functions. At the very least, they enhance the legitimacy of judicial institutions since they reinforce the impartiality and independence of judges. There should be more of them.

Day Five: Matthew Harrington

Religious dissent

Université de Montréal

One of the most disappointing trends in Supreme Court jurisprudence is the increasing tendency to treat religion as a purely individual, private matter. In hindsight, Syndicat Northcrest v Amselem, 2004 SCC 47, [2004] 2 SCR 551 and Multani v Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys, 2006 SCC 6, [2006] 1 SCR 256, which seemed at the time to open up a wide range of new claims based on freedom of religion, appear to have been a short-lived detour. Since those decisions, the Court has had difficulty attempting to define the extent and breadth of religion claims in the public square, especially when those claims involve the rights of religious groups. Three dissents, in particular, show how the Court is moving away from the traditional notion of freedom of religion and slipping into a mindset that privileges irreligion rather than neutrality.

Justice Abella in Alberta v Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony, 2009 SCC 37, [2009] 2 SCR 567

Hutterian Bretheren marks a significant turning point in the Supreme Court’s approach to the protection of religious liberty under Section 2(a) of the Charter.  The case involved a challenge to Alberta’s requirement that persons seeking a driver’s licence submit to having their photo taken. The Wilson Colony objected on the grounds that taking a photo would violate the Second Commandment prohibition on the making of “graven images”. The majority rejected the claim, asserting that the deleterious effects on the Hutterites’ ability to practise their religion were minimal. This is because the law in question did not deprive the Hutterites of a meaningful choice concerning the religious practises at issue.  Instead, all the law did was “impose a cost” on their choice. In a rather shocking passage, the majority then cavalierly asserted that the Hutterites could simply hire people to drive them to doctor’s appointments or contract with commercial trucking firms to transport their supplies and produce.  After all, what was at issue was “not a right, but a privilege”.

In one of two separate dissents, Justice Abella rightly took the majority to task for failing to give adequate respect to the religious interests involved. Abella J rightly chided the majority for failing to adequately balance the competing interests. Her main focus was on the harm to the Hutterite community. She noted that the photo requirement deprived the Wilson Colony of any meaningful choice because it forced them into a position of either giving up their beliefs regarding the Second Commandment or give up the self-sufficiency of the community. In effect, the majority’s solution (“hire drivers”) forced them to abandon their independence. There was no choice: they either violate the Second Commandment and get photos, or violate their beliefs about community independence and hire drivers. Of equal significance was Abella J’s observation that the majority was essentially adopting a hierarchy of law when it described the issuance of driver’s licences as a “privilege”. Abella J rightly noted that Section 1 of the Charter knows no difference between laws that are compulsory and those that merely grant privileges. Thus, she correctly dismissed the suggestion that the government’s granting of a privilege (whatever that is) is somehow subject to some lesser form of scrutiny.

Justice Deschamps in Bruker v Marcovitz, 2007 SCC 54, [2007] 3 SCR 607

Brucker involved a claim for damages by a wife against her husband for his failure to grant her a religious divorce as stipulated in the civil divorce settlement agreement. The Supreme Court dismissed the husband’s religion claim on the grounds that he was being insincere, and that performing the religious act in question would impose only a non-trivial burden upon him.

Justice Deschamps’ dissent begins with the very basic observation that Canadian courts should not be in the business of determining whether religious obligations are valid or not. In this case, Mrs. Bruker was not seeking compensation for an inability to remarry under the civil law; on the contrary, she wanted to be paid for not being able to get a religious marriage. How could a civil court possibly assess damages for not being able to obtain the benefits of a religious rite? Closely related to this point is Deschamps J’s observation that a contract to perform a religious right is no contract at all. This is because a contract in Québec requires that it concern the performance of a “juridical act”, which is effectively something the civil courts can supervise. A religious divorce cannot be a juridical act since the granting of it requires the cooperation of religious authorities over whom the courts have no power.

Justice Deschamps clearly has the better argument, and one that is more consistent with the then-existing precedent. Under any other circumstances, it is hard to imagine a Canadian court requiring a person to take Holy Communion or even say the Lord’s Prayer against his will. After all, in Amselem, the court would not even require the claimant to honour a real estate contract. Yet, here, the court seemed oddly content to penalise a man for not participating in a religious divorce. In order to reach this result, the majority took upon itself to make a judicial determination of what Judaism required in the process of getting a divorce. Justice Deschamps was on firm ground in warning that the courts should stay far away from this type of entanglement.

Justices Côté and Brown in Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, [2018] 2 SCR 293

The TWU case may be the most unfortunate decision ever rendered by the Supreme Court. Couched in the language of diversity, the various opinions making up the majority reek of intolerance. It is clear from the outset that seven of the justices have no time for those who hold to the traditional view of marriage, and were willing to constrict the public square in such a way as to evict those who refuse to conform to current notions of equality. As in Bruker, the majority took upon itself to determine the appropriate content of a religious belief or practice.

The dissent by Justices Coté and Brown is an eloquent statement of what true diversity in a multicultural and multi-religious state entails. It reminds us of that real tolerance lies in ensuring that everyone has access to the public square — even those who hold opinions others might find offensive. Brown and Coté JJ correctly point out that a secular state is not one which enforces irreligion, but rather, which permits both the believer and the areligious to go about their business without hindrance or favour from the state. Thus, neither courts nor administrative agencies ought to be concerned with the “public perception” of what freedom of religion entails. On the contrary, the role of courts in these cases is “not to produce social consensus, but to protect the democratic commitment to live together in peace”. The fact that some people are offended by the TWU community’s beliefs should be of no concern to either the Law Society or the courts. The role of government is not to produce social consensus, but to protect the democratic commitment to live together in peace, even with people who have the temerity to hold opinions which we find reprehensible. Consequently, the result in TWU is to drive those who hold unpopular opinions from the public square.

Another significant aspect of the dissent is the criticism of Doré/Loyola framework. While the dissent notes that TWU was not a proper vehicle for reconsidering the Doré, it nonetheless criticised the majority for the deference it showed to the Law Society. In the view of the majority, an administrative decision-maker need only show that its decision “gives effect, as fully as possible to the Charter protections at stake given the particular statutory mandate”.  This effectively means that Charter rights are guaranteed only so far as they are consistent with the objectives of the enabling statute. Or, as Côté and Brown JJ noted, “[w]hen push comes to shove, statutory objectives — including, presumably, unconstitutional statutory objectives — trump the [Charter] right”.

Similarly, the dissent rejected the idea that “Charter values” are deserving of independent protection. More importantly, the dissent rightly rejected the idea that Charter values could be used to trump a specific Charter right. The obvious reason for this is that “values” are highly contested, so that allowing judges to decided cases on “shared” or “fundamental” values is an utterly specious exercise. As the dissenters write, “[i]t is therefore not open to the state to impose values that it deems to be ‘shared’ upon those who, for religious reasons, take a contrary view. The Charter protects the rights of religious adherents, among others, to participate in Canadian public life in a way that is consistent with their own values.” One hopes that a future Supreme Court will reconsider and abandon the Doré framework in its entirety, and reverse this intolerant decision.

Ce qui compte

Que le projet de loi anti-religieux du Québec soit ou non raciste ou islamophobe est sans importance. Ce qui compte, c’est son illibéralisme

Dans le débat autour du Projet de loi 21, la législation mise de l’avant pour faire de la laïcité la doctrine religieuse officielle du Québec et pour imposer une tenue vestimentaire fondée sur ce dogme aux enseignants, juristes et policiers de la province, on consacre beaucoup d’attention à la question de savoir si ce projet est un reflet du racisme, de l’islamophobie ou d’une autre forme de discrimination. Ceux qui critiquent le projet de loi le disent souvent. Ceux qui le défendent, et même certaines personnes qui ne le font pas, s’en déclarent offusqués et insistent pour dire que la forme agressive de laïcité que le Québec cherche à imposer découle d’une vision politique fondée sur des principes. Or, il me semble que tout cela est sans importance. Que le Projet de loi 21 soit le produit de la discrimination ou de principes fondamentaux importe peu. Il est tout aussi abominable dans un cas comme dans l’autre.

Je dois dire que, personnellement, je me doute bien de ce que la xénophobie contribue, de façon plus que négligeable, au soutien politique dont bénéficie le Projet de loi 21. Sans une peur irrationnelle d’un « envahissement », des étrangers (réels ou supposées tels) qui « imposent leurs façons de faire » aux populations existantes (30, 50, voire 100 fois plus nombreuses), l’ambition des tenants de la laïcité dogmatique d’imposer leur croyance au Québec serait selon toute vraisemblance restée parfaitement théorique. Elle l’a été, après tout, des décennies durant, avant que cette peur ne fût gonflée suite à la décision de la Cour suprême dans Multani c Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys, 2006 CSC 6, [2006] 1 RCS 256, alias l’affaire du kirpan. On nous demande certes de nous rappeler la relation unique et troublante qu’a entretenue le Québec avec la religion (catholique), mais l’appui à la laïcité virulente était sans commune mesure avec son niveau actuel à une époque où, pourtant, la mémoire de cette relation était bien plus vive qu’elle ne l’est à présent. Cependant, quoi qu’il en soit en général, on devrait probablement être réticent à l’idée de lancer des accusations de xénophobie à des individus ― à moins, bien sûr, d’avoir des raisons spécifiques de le faire dans leur cas particulier.

Concentrons-nous donc sur les principes qu’on prétend justifier le Projet de loi 21. Présumons, pour les fins de l’argument, que ceux qui l’appuient croient réellement que, pour citer Christian Rioux dans Le Devoir, “the diversity of modern societies makes state secularism an increasingly unavoidable requirement. The pluralist societies are, more citizens demand that the state’s religious neutrality be beyond reproach” (translation mine here and below). Let us ignore the delightful irony of a man named Christian preaching secularism. Let us even avert our eyes from the sleight-of-hand involved in the equation of “state neutrality”, which as the Supreme Court explained in Mouvement laïque québécois v Saguenay (City), 2015 SCC 16, [2015] 2 SCR 3, “is required of institutions and the state, not individuals”, [74] with the “neutrality” of men and women who work for the state. Let us concede, or imagine, that the supporters of Bill 21 believe in good faith that their vision of secularism is morally justified.

Pourquoi ont-il néanmoins tort? Tout simplement, parce que cette forme de laïcité requiert de grossières violations de la liberté individuelle. Elle veut dire que l’État peut imposer aux individus une façon particulière de pratiquer ou de ne pas pratiquer leur foi ― leur dire, donc, s’ils pourront ou non vivre selon leurs valeurs fondamentales. M. Rioux soutient que le Projet de loi 21 ne fait rien de tel, puisqu’il n’affecterait pas le droit de vivre sa foi, mais seulement le « droit de l’afficher pendant les heures de travail » ― comme si on pouvait avoir une foi à temps partiel. L’idée est risible. Si on demandait à M. Rioux de porter une kippah, mais seulement pendant les heures de travail, ça lui irait? (C’est pour cette raison que les tentatives, fréquentes, de dresser une analogie entre le Projet de loi 21 et les interdictions sur l’auto-identification politique ne fonctionnent pas : l’engagement politique, lui, est toujours à temps partiel, même pour un partisan endurci, et peut être mis de côté, puis renouvelé, alors que la foi religieuse ne le peut pas.)

Il va sans dire, l’État peut limiter, voire nier, la liberté d’une personne pour l’empêcher de s’en servir pour porter atteinte à la vie, à la liberté ou aux biens d’autrui ; et, peut-être, pour l’empêcher de nier l’appartenance égale d’une autre personne à la communauté. Or, les détenteurs de charges publiques ou les employés de l’État qui refusent de se convertir à une religion à temps partiel ou de faire acte d’apostasie ne font rien de tel. Ils ne volent personne, ils n’empêchent personne de faire quoi que ce soit, ils n’imposent leurs croyances à personne. Ils sont, bien sûr, manifestement identifiables comme appartenant à une confession religieuse ou une autre, mais la plupart de nous sommes manifestement identifiable comme apparentant à un genre ou à un groupe racial plutôt qu’un autre. Une enseignante musulmane qui porte le hijab ne fait pas plus de ses élèves des Musulmans qu’un enseignant blanc n’en fait des hommes blancs. (Il est bien sûr possible qu’une enseignante ou un fonctionnaire croyants fasse du prosélytisme ou accorde un traitement de faveur à un co-religionnaire. C’est cela qu’il faut réprimer, le cas échéant, tout comme il faut réprimer la propagande ou le favoritisme fondés sur d’autres aspects d’une identité personnelle.)

Sauf que, pour leur part, les obsédés de la laïcité qui soutiennent le Projet de loi 21 acceptent que l’État dénie la liberté individuelle pour bien d’autres raisons encore. M. Rioux écrit que, « [f]ace au multiculturalisme qui tente d’imposer partout sa pensée unique, le premier ministre a eu raison d’affirmer dimanche dernier que “c’est comme ça qu’on vit ici” », parce que « les Québécois ont beaucoup plus qu’une langue en partage ». Passons outre, encore une fois, l’ironie d’une dénonciation de la pensée unique conjuguée à l’insistance que l’État peut priver les citoyens de leur liberté au nom de la façon dont on « vivrait ici » et de ce qu’on aurait, supposément, « en partage ». Si M. Rioux n’était pas un hypocrite, l’idée qu’une façon de vivre officiellement reconnue ― réputée largement partagée malgré et, en fait, précisément en raison de l’évidence frappante du fait qu’elle ne l’est pas ― peut être imposée par la force par l’État à ceux qui n’y souscrivent pas ne serait ni moins fausse ni moins pernicieuse. Cette idée, c’est la prétention que ceux qui détiennent le pouvoir sont autorisés à dicter leurs croyances et leur façon de vivre à tous, pour la seule et unique raison qu’ils détiennent le pouvoir. Elle est incompatible avec toute liberté digne de ce nom.

Bien entendu, cette opinion illibérale est largement répandue. Elle n’est le propre d’aucun groupe racial ou religieux, d’aucune nation. M. Rioux en appelle, à l’encontre des accusations d’islamophobie, au fait qu’une large majorité de Musulmans français seraient favorables à des restrictions similaires à celles qu’imposerait le Projet de loi 21. Ils ne peuvent pas être islamophobes, eux, n’est-ce pas? C’est très juste, et sans pertinence aucune. Un Musulman français peut être tout aussi illibéral qu’un Canadien français catho-laïque. D’ailleurs, les chouchous judiciaires des intellectuels canadiens bien-pensants se sont montrés tout à fait capables de verser dans l’illibéralisme de cette sorte quand ils ont invoqué de mythiques « valeurs communes » pour permettre à un organe de l’État de nier une accréditation à une institution religieuse dissidente.

Le dire maintenant peut sembler étonnant, mais le débat autour du Projet de loi 21 démontre aussi bien que n’importe quel autre ne pourrait le faire que l’égalité, et les -phobies et les -ismes qui l’accompagnent, prennent beaucoup trop de place dans notre pensée et notre discours. Il ne s’agit pas de dire que ces choses sont sans importance. Cependant, ce qu’il y a de mauvais dans notre vie publique n’est pas toujours mauvais parce que cela contrevient à la valeur d’égalité. Par ailleurs, ce qui n’y contrevient pas n’est pas forcément permis pour autant, et ce qui contribue à la réaliser n’est pas, dès lors, requis. Il est temps qu’on se rappelle que la liberté est tout aussi importante ― mieux encore, qu’on réalise qu’elle est plus importante, mais je n’en demande pas autant tout de suite. Il est temps qu’on se rappelle que les individus en chair et en os, et non des abstractions rêvées ou des communautés imaginées, sont ce qui compte. Il est temps qu’on cesse de craindre l’usage que feraient les autres de leur liberté si on ne les menottait pas par prévention. Il est temps qu’on soit libre.

What Really Matters

Whether Québec’s anti-religious bill is racist or Islamophobic is beside the point. What matters is its illiberalism

In the debate about Bill 21, Québec’s proposed legislation to make “laicity”, whatever exactly that is, the province’s official religious doctrine, and to impose a correspondingly faith-based dress code on its teachers, lawyers, and police officers, much attention is being devoted to the question of whether the endeavour reflects racism, Islamophobia, or other forms of discrimination. The proposal’s critics often say that it does. Its defenders, and indeed some critics, profess offence at the suggestion, and insist that the aggressive form of secularism the Québec seeks to enforce is a principled political vision. It seems to me that this all quite beside the point. Whether or not Bill 21 is the product of discrimination or of high principle does not matter. It is equally despicable either way.

Now, I should say that I personally have little doubt that xenophobia makes a more-than-deminimis contribution to such political support as there is for Bill 21. Without an irrational fear of “invaders”, of foreigners (actual or presumed) who “impose their customs” on the established populations (which outnumber them by 30- or 50- if not 100-to-1), the ambitions of dogmatic secularists to impose their creed on Québec would in all likelihood have remained perfectly theoretical. This is, after all, what they had been for decades, before this fear started being inflated in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Multani v Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys, 2006 SCC 6, [2006] 1 SCR 256, a.k.a. the kirpan case. For all that we are asked to remember Québec’s uniquely fraught relationship with (Catholic) religion, there was nothing like the current degree of support for virulent secularism at a time when the memories of this relationship were fresher than they are now. Still, whatever may be the case in general, we should probably be reluctant to make accusations of xenophobia against individuals ― unless, of course, we have specific reasons to do so in their particular case.

Let us focus, then, on the supposed principled justifications for Bill 21. Let us presume, for the sake of argument, that its supporters really believe that, as Christian Rioux put it in Le Devoir, “the diversity of modern societies makes state secularism an increasingly unavoidable requirement. The pluralist societies are, more citizens demand that the state’s religious neutrality be beyond reproach” (translation mine here and below). Let us ignore the delightful irony of a man named Christian preaching secularism. Let us even avert our eyes from the sleight-of-hand involved in the equation of “state neutrality”, which as the Supreme Court explained in Mouvement laïque québécois v Saguenay (City), 2015 SCC 16, [2015] 2 SCR 3, “is required of institutions and the state, not individuals”, [74] with the “neutrality” of men and women who work for the state. Let us concede, or imagine, that the supporters of Bill 21 believe in good faith that their vision of secularism is morally justified.

Why are they wrong? Simply because this form of secularism involves gross violations of individual liberty. It means that the state gets to tell people how, or how not, to practise their faith ― whether they will be allowed to pursue their fundamental commitments. Mr. Rioux denies that Bill 21 does any such thing, since it only affects “the right to publicize [one’s religion] during working hours” ― as if one could have a part-time faith. This is laughable. If Mr. Rioux were asked to wear a kippah, but only during working hours, would that be all right by him? (This is why the frequent attempts to analogize the policy of Bill 21 to bans on political self-identification do not work: political commitments are indeed part-time things, even for hardened partisans, and can be set aside and then resumed, in a way that religious commitments cannot.)

Needless to say, the state may limit or even take away a person’s liberty to avoid it being used to interfere the life, liberty, or property of others; and, perhaps, to avoid it being used to deny others’ equal membership in the community. But public officials or employees who refuse to convert to part-time religion or to commit apostasy do no such thing. They do not take anyone’s property; they do not deprive anyone of their ability to do anything; they do not impose their beliefs on anyone. Sure, they are visibly, manifestly, identifiable as having a religious affiliations; but most of us are visibly, manifestly identifiable as members of particular genders and racial groups, not to mention as being of a certain age. A Muslim teacher wearing a hijab no more makes her students Muslim than a white male teacher makes his students white men. (Of course it is possible that a religious teacher or public servant will engage in proselytism, or unduly favour co-religionists. These things should be punished, just as propaganda or favouritism based on other commitments or aspects of one’s identity should be punished.)

The secularist obsessives supporting Bill 21, however, have a much more expansive view of the reasons for which the state can deny people’s liberty. Mr. Rioux writes that, “faced with a multiculturalism that seeks to impose its single-minded thinking everywhere, the premier [of Québec] was right to assert … that ‘this is how we live here'”, because “Quebeckers have much more than a language in common”. Never mind, again, the irony of denouncing single-minded thinking while insisting that a state may deprive citizens of liberty in the name of “how we live here” and of what they purportedly “have in common”. Were Mr. Rioux not a hypocrite, the idea that state-sanctioned ways of doing things ― said to be widely or even universally shared despite, and indeed precisely because of, glaring evidence of the fact that they are not ― can be imposed by force on those who do not share them would be no less wrong-headed, and no less pernicious. This idea purports to authorize those in power to dictate their beliefs and their ways of living to everyone, for no other reason than that they are in power. It is incompatible with any liberty that deserves the name.

Of course this illiberal view is widely held. It is not confined to any particular racial or religious group, or any nationality. Mr. Rioux appeals, against the charge of Islamophobia, to the fact that a large majority of French Muslims apparently support restrictions similar to those that would be imposed by Bill 21. They can’t be Islamophobes, can they? This sounds like a good argument, so far as it goes, except that it doesn’t go anywhere that matters. A French Muslim can be as illiberal as a French Canadian lapsed Catholic. For that matter, the judicial darlings of Canada’s bien-pensant multiculturalist intelligentsia have proven themselves quite capable of this sort of illiberalism when then invoked mythical “shared values” to authorize an arm of the state to deny an accreditation to a religious dissenting institution, in Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32.

It might be odd to say so now, but the debate around Bill 21 shows as well as any other that equality, and its attendant -phobias and -isms, occupy too large a space is our thought and discourse. This is not to say that these things do not matter. But not everything that is wrong in our politics is wrong because it contravenes the value of equality. Nor is anything that does not contravene this value therefore permitted, or anything that supports this value therefore required. It is time we remembered that liberty is no less important ― or, better yet, that we realized that liberty is more important, but I am not asking for everything at once. It is time we remembered that living individuals, not intellectual dreamt-up abstractions or imagined communities, are what really matters. It is time we stopped fearing the way in which others might use their liberty if we do not preemptively coerce them. It is time we were free.

Is Québec’s Dress Code Unconstitutional?

There is a serious argument to be made that Québec’s ban on religious symbols infringes the federal division of powers

Back when a previous Québec government sought to impose a dress-code on the province’s employees, I suggested here and here that, should the province seek to insulate its legislation from review based on its manifest violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Québec’s own Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms by invoking these Charters’ respective “notwithstanding clauses”, the question of constitutionality could still be raised. That is because such legislation may well infringe not only the constitutional guarantees of religious liberty, but also the federal division of powers, to which the “notwithstanding clauses” do not apply. 

The idea of a dress code for (some) public employees is back, in the shape of a bizarrely named Bill 21, An Act respecting the laicity of the State. (Pro tip for the legislative draughtsman: “laicity” is not a synonym of “secularism”.) And as Bill 21 invokes the “notwithstanding clauses”, the issue of its consistency with the federal division of powers must be addressed.


Fortunately, Maxime St-Hilaire has posted a thorough review (en français) of the relevant case law over at À qui de droit. With his kind permission, a (very slightly shortened and re-formatted) translation follows:

Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in no way allows Parliament or a legislature to suspend the federal division of legislative powers. Only the federal emergency power makes it possible to do this, temporarily.

Recall that, in 1852, before Confederation, the legislature of the United Province of Canada enacted a Freedom of Worship Act. In 1867, the protection of religious freedom was not, as such, assigned to either Parliament or the legislatures. The Freedom of Worship Act remains purportedly valid as a law of Québec.

However, in Saumur v City of Quebec, [1953] 2 SCR 299, which involved a by-law subjecting the distribution of any literature in the city’s streets to the approval of the chief of police, four of the nine judges took the position that religious freedom was outside the scope of provincial jurisdiction, and within that of Parliament. In somewhat different ways, the four took the position that, being a restriction on freedom of religion, the by-law could not be justified as an exercise of the provincial power over “Property and Civil Rights in the Province” provided by section 92(13) of the Constitution Act, 1867, or that over “Municipal Institutions in the Province”, or any other provincial power, including that over “Matters of a merely local or private Nature in the Province”, provided by section 92(16). Rather, religious freedom was a matter within the scope either of the federal criminal law power (section 91(27)), or of the section 91 residual federal power over “Peace, Order, and Good Government of Canada”. Two other judges were content to raise this argument without either endorsing or rejecting it: “It may well be that Parliament alone has power to make laws in relation to the subject of religion as such”. (387; per Cartwright J). Only three of the nine judges took the position that freedom of religion fell within the scope of the provincial power over “Property and Civil Rights” or, perhaps, “Matters of a merely local or private Nature”.

Saumur was ultimately decided on the basis of the by-law’s interpretation, rather than its validity. Two years later, in Henry Birks & Sons (Montreal) Ltd v City of Montreal, [1955] SCR 799, the Supreme Court unanimously held that a Québec statute specifically allowing municipalities to prohibit the opening of shops on designated Catholic holidays was ultra vires the province, because in pith and substance it was colourable criminal law. Justice Kellock (with the agreement of Justice Locke), went so far as to suggest that 

[e]ven if it could be said that legislation of the character here in question is not properly “criminal law” within the meaning of s. 91(27), it would, in my opinion, still be beyond the jurisdiction of a provincial legislature as being legislation with respect to freedom of religion dealt with by the [Freedom of Worship Act]. (823)

This was also the view of Justice Rand, for whom “legislation in relation to religion the provision is beyond provincial authority to enact”. (814)

In Dupond v City of Montreal, [1978] 2 SCR 770, Justice Beetz, for the majority, argues that the freedom of religion belongs partly to the federal criminal law power, so far as the imposition of religious observance is concerned, and partly a matter of provincial competence over purely local matters (similarly to the “freedoms of speech [and] of the press”). (796-97)

This was confirmed in R v Big M Drug Mart, [1985] 1 SCR 295, where Justice Dickson, for the majority, held that

Parliament’s legislative competence to enact the Lord’s Day Act depends on the identification of the purpose of the Act as compel­ling observance of Sunday by virtue of its religious significance. Were its purpose not religious but rather the secular goal of enforcing a uniform day of rest from labour, the Act would come under s. 92(13), property and civil rights in the province and, hence, fall under provincial rather than federal competence. (354)

Since the freedom of religion includes the freedom of conscience, and thus the freedom not to believe, it is tempting to argue that any law that imposes either a form of religious belief or non-belief falls under Parliament’s exclusive power over criminal law. However, as explained in Reference re Assisted Human Reproduction Act2010 SCC 61, [2010] 3 SCR 457, to belong to the realm of criminal law, a law must “suppress an evil, … establish a prohibition, and … accompany that prohibition with a penalty”. [233]

However, it seems settled that both Parliament and the legislatures are able to protect or to justifiably limit, within the meaning of section 1 of the Charter, the freedom of conscience and religion, through the use of their ancillary powers. The power over religion is thus a shared one within the federal division of powers. The Supreme Court has confirmed this, for example in R v Edwards Books and Art Ltd, [1986] 2 SCR 713. Justice Dickson, uncontradicted on this point, expressed the following view:

[T]here exist religious matters which must similarly fall within provincial competence. … It would seem, therefore, that the Constitution does not contemplate religion as a discrete constitutional “matter” falling exclusively within either a federal or provincial class of subjects. Legislation concerning religion or religious freedom ought to be characterized, I believe, in light of its context, according to the particular religious matter upon which the legislation is focussed. … 

Applying the above principles to the appeals at bar, it is, in my opinion, open to a provincial legislature to attempt to neutralize or minimize the adverse effects of otherwise valid provincial legislation on human rights such as freedom of religion. (750-51)

There is nothing impossible about a Québec statute on secularism enacted notwithstanding the Charter being held invalid as a violation of the federal division of powers. The outcome will depend largely on the evidence and arguments related to the (real) purpose of the law. If those challenging the law were able to persuade the court that the purpose of (and not only the means taken by) the statute is religious in the legal, that is to say broad, sense of the term, and restrictive, the court could strike it down in whole or in part, notwithstanding its use of the notwithstanding clause.


I would only add a few comments. To begin with, following up on Professor St-Hilaire’s conclusion, it is important to note (as I already did in my original posts) that what might, to some, feel like a runaround to avoid the effects of the invocation of section 33 of the Canadian Charter is nothing of the sort. Some runarounds have been proposed in the last couple of days, for example by Louis-Philippe Lampron and Pierre Bosset, who suggest that unwritten constitutional principles can be invoked to impose limits on the legislature’s ability to invoke section 33. This is just not plausible. In British Columbia v Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd2005 SCC 49, [2005] 2 SCR 473, the Supreme Court made it clear unwritten principles cannot be used to make up perceived shortcomings in the scope of the Charter’s protections. This logic must apply to the “notwithstanding clause” as much as to the gaps in the Charter‘s substantive rights. By contrast, however, the limits on a provincial legislature’s legislative power that pre-existed the Charter remain intact and enforceable. Section 31 of the Charter itself tells us as much. It provides that “[n]othing in this Charter extends the legislative powers of any body or authority.” 

Next, I would argue that the purpose of Bill 21 is quite clearly religious, or rather anti-religious. These two things, as Professor St-Hilaire points out, are equivalent for constitutional purposes. The bill’s preamble proclaims that “it is incumbent on the Parliament of Québec to determine the principles according to which and manner in which relations between the State and religions are to be governed in Québec” and that “it is important that the paramountcy of State laicity be enshrined in Québec’s legal order”. Clause 1 provides that “The State of Québec is a lay State”. (Pro tip for the legislative draughtsman: “lay” is not a synonym of “secular”; this is another calque, just like “laicity”.) Clause 2 sets out “principles” on which “[t]he laicity [sic] of the State is based”, including “the separation of State and religions” and, supposedly, “the religious neutrality of the State”. (This is a rather transparent lie, since the bill would exclude religious individuals from a variety of functions within the purportedly neutral state.) And Bill 21’s centrepiece is, of course, Clause 6, which provides that various public employees and some contractors “are prohibited from wearing religious symbols in the exercise of their functions”. Only “religious symbols” ― not political ones, or those that have to do with any other aspect of people’s identities ― are targeted. This is a regulation of religion, and nothing else.

Consider, then, the arguments that the Québec government might make in defence of its legislation. The authority for it, if it exists at all, presumably comes from section 45 of the Constitution Act, 1982, or section 92(4) of the Constitution Act, 1867. The former provides that, subject to limitations that are not relevant here, “the legislature of each province may exclusively make laws amending the constitution of the province”. The latter grants the provinces power over “The Establishment and Tenure of Provincial Offices and the Appointment and Payment of Provincial Officers”. The scope of section 45’s predecessor provision, section 92(1) of the Constitution Act, 1867, was explained by Justice Beetz in his majority reasons in Ontario (Attorney General) v OPSEU, [1987] 2 SCR 2. To determine whether an enactment qualifies as an amendment to the constitution of the province, one must first ask:

is the enactment in question, by its object, relative to a branch of the government of Ontario … ? Does it for instance determine the composition, powers, authority, privileges and duties of the legislative or of the executive branches or their members? Does it regulate the interrelationship between two or more branches? Or does it set out some principle of government? (39)

However, even if the answer to this first question (or set of questions) is in the affirmative, one must keep in mind the restrictions on the provinces’ legislative authority imposed by the federal division of powers, and other limits imposed by the constitution of Canada as a whole. One can certainly argue that Bill 21 imposes duties on members of the three branches of Québec’s government, and sets out a “principle of government”. But if its true purpose is not so much to regulate the functioning of the provincial government as to compel religious non-observance, then it is still not valid legislation amending the provincial constitution. And I would add that, although the government might claim that it is not trying to prevent anyone from being religious outside of their working hours, religiosity is not something that can be switched off from 9AM to 5PM and then back on again. 

Indeed, Justice Beetz’s comments in OPSEU on section 92(4) are suggestive here. Justice Beetz wrote that limitations on civil servants’ political activity at both the federal and the provincial level “constitute a term or condition of tenure of provincial office, enforced by compulsory resignation or dismissal. Their object is to ensure in this respect, not partial virtue, but global political independence for provincial officers.” (48) One can certainly say that Bill 21’s limitations on religious expression are a term or condition of tenure of provincial office. But if the government argues that their object is to ensure not partial, but global irreligion on the part of its employees, then the proposition that Bill 21 is not aimed at banning religious observance should be a tough sell.


Quite apart from constitutional issues, Bill 21 is a disaster from the standpoint of political morality. It is a massive violation of religious liberty of those who already are, or might in the future like to become, employed by the Québec government or hold provincial office. While less discriminatory on its face than Québec’s previous attempts at a dress code, in that it purports to ban all religious symbols and not just “ostentatious” ones (i.e. the hijab, the kippah, and the turban, but not the cross worn by Catholics, lapsed or otherwise, who constitute the majority of Québec’s population), it still transparently invites discrimination. It seems unlikely, to say the least, that anyone will be looking for crosses under civil servants’ shirts. Hijabs, kippahs, and turbans, on the other hand… But the constitution, despite the Québec government’s attempt to shove it aside, might yet stand in the way of this iniquity.

What’s Left of Freedom?

In the Trinity Western cases, the Supreme Court eviscerates religious liberty in Canada

In my last post, I discussed the administrative and constitutional law issues relating to judicial review of the decisions of the law societies of British Columbia and Ontario to deny accreditation to the law school set up by the Trinity Western University, which the Supreme Court upheld in in Law Society of British Columbia v. Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32 and Trinity Western University v. Law Society of Upper Canada, 2018 SCC 33.  Here, I turn to the religious freedom aspect of the decisions. (Once again, the British Columbia decision is the one that sets out the judges’ reasoning in full, and I will refer to it below.) As indicated in the last post, in my view the Supreme Court’s decisions are disastrous, because they more or less nullify the constitutional protection for religious freedom enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Trinity Western requires its students (as well as faculty) to sign and abide by a “Covenant” that proscribes, among other things, sex outside heterosexual marriage. This is widely seen as discrimination against gay and lesbian (potential) students, and was the reason for the law societies’ decisions not to accredit Trinity Western’s law school. Trinity Western argued that these decisions infringed its and its students’ freedom of religion, and that the infringement could not be justified under the Charter.

As on the issues covered in the last post, the Court is split. The majority judgment signed by Justices Abella, Moldaver, Karakatsanis, Wagner, and Gascon holds that there is indeed a prima facie infringement of religious liberty, but that it is not especially serious and is easily outweighed by the need to prevent harm to students. The Chief Justice, concurring, also finds that there is an infringement of religious freedom, and indeed a rather more serious than the majority lets on, but one that is nevertheless outweighed by the law societies’ desire to avoid condoning discrimination. By contrast, Justice Rowe, also concurring, thinks that religious freedom is not at stake at all. Justices Brown and Côté dissent, finding an infringement of religious freedom that is not justified.

* * *

The majority is of the view that constitutional protection extends to “the socially embedded nature of religious belief” and to “[t]he ability of religious adherents to come together and create cohesive communities of belief and practice”. [64] Trinity Western “is a private religious institution created to support the collective religious practices of its members”, whose rights were “limited” [61] when it was denied accreditation, because their ability to put into practice a “sincere[] belie[f] that studying in a community defined by religious beliefs in which members follow particular religious rules of conduct contributes to their spiritual development” was thereby undermined. [70] The majority adds that, while the freedoms of expression and association, as well as equality rights, were also raised in the cases, “the religious freedom claim is sufficient to account for [these] rights of [Trinity Western]’s community members in the analysis.” [77]

The Chief Justice agrees that “the freedom of religion of members of the Trinity Western community” [120] has been infringed. To be sure, as individuals, they can go on holding their beliefs regardless of whether the law societies accredit the Trinity Western law school. However, they would be “prevent[ed] from carrying out a practice flowing from [their] belief about the environment in which [Trinity Western] would offer a legal education”. [125] The Chief Justice adds that the freedoms of expression and association must be included within “the ambit of the guarantee of freedom of religion”. [122]

Justice Rowe, by contrast, denies that anyone’s freedom of religion is being infringed. He starts from the premise “that religious freedom is based on the exercise of free will”, because it “involves a profoundly personal commitment”. [212] For Justice Rowe, it follows from this that, although religion can have a “communal aspect”, it is individuals, and not institutions ― such as Trinity Western ―, who can invoke the right to religious freedom. [219] “[M]embers of the evangelical Christian community” [219] who attend Trinity Western can assert religious rights, but Justice Rowe is skeptical that they “sincerely believe in the importance of studying in an environment where all students abide by the Covenant”. [235] They prefer to do so, but do they really think they have to?Even assuming that this is so, however, Trinity Western’s evangelical students are not entitled to constitutional protection for their belief, which “constrains the conduct of nonbelievers — in other words, those who have freely chosen not to believe”. [239] They cannot, in the name of religious freedom, impose their views on those who do not share them. Since the legislation that sets up Trinity Western requires it to admit non-members of the evangelical community, these non-members are entitled to have their freedom protected too. As for “alleged infringements to … expressive and associate [sic] freedom rights … and … equality rights”, the members of the Trinity Western community “have not discharged their burden” of establishing them. [252]

The dissent sees things very differently. In the opinion of Justices Côté and Brown, the law societies’ denial of accreditation to Trinity Western “undermines the core character of a lawful religious institution and disrupts the vitality of the [Trinity Western] community”. [324] This community has the right to set its own rules for its self-governance, and the law societies are not entitled to dictate how it should do so as a condition of providing it with a benefit. Such dictation

contravened the state’s duty of religious neutrality: [it] represented an expression by the state of religious preference which promotes the participation of non-believers, or believers of a certain kind, to the exclusion of the community of believers found at [Trinity Western]. [324]

The dissenters are exactly right. The majority and the Chief Justice are also correct in recognizing an infringement of the Charter‘s guarantee of religious freedom, though as we shall see, the majority’s recognition, in particular, is well-nigh meaningless, and it is too bad that neither the majority nor the Chief Justice articulate the issue in terms of state neutrality. The key to the Charter aspect of the case is that Trinity Western has been denied something that there is no doubt it would have been granted but for the religious belief and practice which it embodies. While some, including both critics and supporters of the Supreme Court’s decision, have suggested that the case should really have been about freedom of association, I think it makes sense to frame as being about the state neutrality aspect of religious liberty. (That said, freedom of association would also have been a plausible approach ― at least if one ignores the Supreme Court’s refashioning of this provision into one that only benefits labour unions).

Justice Rowe, in my view, is quite mistaken. For one thing, I don’t understand how he, as an appellate judge, can make findings, or even speculate, about the sincerity of individual’s religious beliefs. For another ― and this, as we’ll presently see, is a problem not just for him, but for the majority too ― the suggestion that a court can distinguish between beliefs that are well and truly obligatory and those that are mere “preferences” goes against the approach adopted by the majority of the Supreme Court in Syndicat Northcrest v Amselem, 2004 SCC 47, [2004] 2 SCR 551, which rejects testing the “validity” of religious beliefs, or asking whether a given practice is regarded as truly mandatory or supererogatory. Most fundamentally, Justice Rowe is wrong to claim that Trinity Western is trying to impose its beliefs on anyone. It demands forbearance from certain actions ― without inquiring into the reasons for this forbearance, in the same way as the state normally demands compliance with laws but doesn’t require citizens to subscribe to the principles behind them. Such demands are indeed quite antithetical to the freedom of conscience ― and one can only hope that Justice Rowe will remember this if or when the Law Society of Ontario’s Statement of Principles policy comes to his court for review ― but this is not what is going on here.

* * *

For the majority, denying Trinity Western accreditation was the only way for the Law Societies to further their statutory mandate (as they understood it), and the denial was “proportionate” to that mandate. It “did not limit religious freedom to a significant extent”, [85] and “does not prohibit any evangelical Christians from adhering to the Covenant or associating with those who do”. [86] Trinity Western itself can still receive accreditation by removing the “Covenant”, or making compliance with it voluntary, and “a mandatory covenant is … not absolutely required for the religious practice at issue”. [87] As for the students who wish to attend it, they prefer to go to a law school governed by the mandatory “Covenant”, but do not have to.

Meanwhile, denying Trinity Western accreditation contributed to “maintaining equal access to and diversity in the legal profession”. [93] Even though accrediting Trinity Western wouldn’t restrict LGBTQ students’ options in comparison with what they currently are, it would leave them with fewer options than their peers which “undermines true” or “substantive equality”. [95] The denial of accreditation also serves to protect any LGBTQ students who were to venture to Trinity Western from “the risk of significant harm” to their dignity, [96] and prevents Trinity Western from “impos[ing]” [102] its religious beliefs on them (and others). The majority concludes that this is just one of the cases where “minor limits on religious freedom are often an unavoidable reality of a decision-maker’s pursuit of its statutory mandate in a multicultural and democratic society.” [100]

The Chief Justice agrees that the denial of accreditation “was minimally impairing”, [127] but she takes the infringement of Trinity Western’s rights more seriously than the majority. Interference with a “lengthy and passionately held tradition” “of religious schools … established to allow people to study at institutions that reflect their faith and their practices” [130] is no trivial matter. Besides, court cannot assess the significance of religious beliefs and practices, or conclude that they are of minor significance because some believers “may be prepared to give [them] up”. [132] Finally, the Chief Justice rejects the argument that Trinity Western is imposing its beliefs on others:

Students who do not agree with the religious practices do not need to attend these schools. But if they want to attend, for whatever reason, and agree to the practices required of students, it is difficult to speak of compulsion. [133]

On the other side of the balancing exercise, the Chief Justice is skeptical that denying Trinity Western accreditation will do much for LGBTQ students, few of whom would ever consider attending it. However, she gives more weight to “the imperative of refusing to condone discrimination against LGBTQ people, pursuant to the [law societies’] statutory obligation to protect the public interest”. [137] The Chief Justice finds that “[d]espite the forceful claims made by” Trinity Western, she “cannot conclude that” denying it accreditation “was unreasonable”. [148]

The dissent, by contrast, sees no good justification for the denial of accreditation to Trinity Western ― even on the assumption (which, as explained in the previous post, the dissent denies) that the law societies have a free-standing mandate to advance “the public interest”. To be sure, Trinity Western’s “Covenant” is exclusionary; but  this exclusion “is a function of accommodating religious freedom, which itself advances the public interest by promoting diversity in a liberal, pluralist society”. [327] Canada has traditionally accommodated religious difference, instead of insisting, as the majority does, that it must sometimes be curtailed in the pursuit of statutory objectives. Moreover, “it is the state and state actors — not private institutions like [Trinity Western] — which are constitutionally bound to accommodate difference in order to foster pluralism”. [330] The state is supposed to be secular ― and that means

pluralism and respect for diversity, not the suppression of full participation in society by imposing a forced choice between conformity with a single majoritarian norm and withdrawal from the public square. Secularism does not exclude religious beliefs, even discriminatory religious beliefs, from the public square. Rather, it guarantees an inclusive public square by neither privileging nor silencing any single view. [332]

Besides,  “the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia has already determined that the public interest is served by accommodating religious communities” [335] when it exempted Trinity Western from the application of the provincial anti-discrimination legislation.

The dissent also rejects the Chief Justice’s position that accrediting Trinity Western would amount to condoning its discriminatory beliefs:

State recognition of the rights of a private actor does not amount to an endorsement of that actor’s beliefs … Equating approval to condonation turns the protective shield of the Charter into a sword by effectively imposing Charter obligations on private actors. [338]

The state is not entitled to impose its values on those who are not subject to constitutional obligations. While it may not favour particular beliefs, neither may it deny recognition to persons or institutions who hold beliefs that are at odds with its own commitments.

On this, again, the dissenters are exactly right. The majority and the Chief Justice are allowing the law societies to circumvent the decisions of the framers of the Charter and the British Columbia legislature to permit illiberal and discriminatory private actors to retain and act on their religiously motivated beliefs. Yet religious freedom demands no less. When the state uses its regulatory (or, in other cases, its fiscal) power to deny benefits to persons and institutions whose only “fault” is that they hold religious beliefs of which the state does not approve, it not only fails to discharge its duty of neutrality, but actively seeks to eliminate religious diversity or, at best, to push dissentient religious views into the closet. (I use this phrase advisedly.) Moreover, the Chief Justice’s logic ― that the state is entitled to deny a license, benefit, or privilege to persons or entities whose views it ought not to condone ― extends well beyond the realm of religious freedom. Can racist parents be prevented from sending their children to public schools? Holocaust deniers from getting driver’s licenses? Can flat-Earthers be denied passports, or EI payments? In fine, can any interaction a citizen might have with the state be conditioned on that citizen’s not holding proscribed beliefs?

The majority, of course, is no more respectful of religious freedom than the Chief Justice ― and probably less so. Like Justice Rowe, it would, contrary to Amselem, set up secular courts as ecclesiastical tribunals responsible for determining what is and what is not mandatory as a matter of religious dogma. Like Justice Rowe, it confuses rules of conduct and reasons for complying with them and denies the agency of persons who voluntarily choose to submit to rules whose raison d’être they might disapprove of. As for its understanding of “substantive” equality, it requires denying options to all so as not to admit of any disparity, even one that literally leaves “enough and as good” ― and indeed, more than enough and better ― options to those ostensibly excluded; in other words, a levelling down.

* * *

I’m not sure how much is left of the constitutional guarantee of religious liberty after the Trinity Western decisions. Presumably, purely private devotion still cannot be forbidden or compelled ― to that extent, it is fortunate that the Chief Justice’s approach, which would have opened even private religious views to scrutiny the moment a citizen starts interacting with the state, has not prevailed. But any relationships between religious persons or entities with others ― even entirely consensual relationships ― are now open to regulation in which the religiously motivated actions can be regulated or prohibited as impositions of belief, or subjected to the imposition of the state’s values, whether or not there is any legislative basis for such imposition in the circumstances. Purely symbolic harms are deemed to provide sufficient justification for regulation, and multiculturalism is made to serve as an excuse for silencing and assimilating non-conformists. It is telling that the arguments that purportedly justify the denial of accreditation to Trinity Western are not meaningfully different from that those that supposedly support bans on Muslim face veils, which are also said to be necessary to prevent the imposition of retrograde, discriminatory views on those who do not freely embrace them.

Almost five years ago, I commented on an article by Douglas Laycock called “Religious Liberty and the Culture Wars,” which decried the growing hostility to religious freedom among large sections of the political left. Professor Laycock connected this hostility to the religious right’s own attempts to suppress the liberties of the people it regarded as morally misguided. But, contrary to the claims of the Supreme Court’s majority and Justice Rowe, no such thing happened at Trinity Western. However distasteful its views ― and I do find them distasteful, not just the homophobia but the illiberalism more broadly ― Trinity Western wasn’t trying to impose them on unwilling outsiders. Professor Laycock was hopeful that “[w]e could still create a society in which both sides can live their own values, if we care enough about liberty to protect it for both sides”. (41) The Trinity Western cases show this possibility is no longer a realistic one in Canada, for the foreseeable future. The winners in the culture war have chosen not to take prisoners, and to accept nothing short of an unconditional surrender. The Supreme Court holds that they are entitled to do so.