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.

A Prayer for Neutrality

This morning, the Supreme Court delivered its judgment in the municipal prayer case, Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City), 2015 SCC 16, holding that a prayer recited by the Mayor at the beginning of the city council’s meetings, as well the municipal regulation which regulated its recitation, infringed the City’s duty of neutrality and the rights of an atheist citizen, Alain Simoneau. The Court thus delivers a well-deserved rebuke to the Québec Court of Appeal, which had sided with the City in a judgment I suggested bordered on surrealism. The Court’s judgment is almost unanimous, with only Justice Abella not signing onto Justice Gascon’s reasons (the first he has produced alone, and his first for a majority, after his joint dissent in the gun registry case), and only because of a disagreement about standards of review.

Although the City referred to the prayer as “traditional” and sought (successfully at the Court of Appeal) to defend it as a sort of cultural artifact, the prayer was only as old as the City itself ― that is to say that it dated all the way back to… 2002. It was also unmistakably theistic, referring and appealing to “Almighty God.” Besides, as Justice Gascon points out, the mayor and “[o]ther councillors and municipal officials would cross themselves at the beginning and end of the prayer as well.” As for the by-law, it was of an even more recent vintage, having been enacted in 2008, after Mr. Simoneau’s complaint that gave rise to this case had been filed with Québec’s Human Rights Commission.

The first issue Justice Gascon addresses concerns the applicable standards of review. I will not say much about it here, in the interest of (relative) concision. Justice Gascon concludes that, while the Human Rights Tribunal’s holding on the meaning and scope of the state’s religious neutrality must be assessed on a standard of correctness, its other findings, in particular those that concerned the infringement of Mr. Simoneau’s rights and the religious nature of the prayer, had to reviewed on the reasonableness standard. Another preliminary issue was whether the Tribunal, and hence the courts reviewing its decision, could rule on the propriety of the religious symbols present in the halls where the Saguenay council met. Justice Gascon finds that they could not.

The main issues for the Supreme Court were the state’s duty of religious neutrality and the infringement of Mr. Simoneau’s rights (in particular, given the case’s origins in a complaint to a human rights tribunal, his right not to be discriminated against on the basis of religion). The two are closely linked since, as Justice Gascon puts it, “[s]ponsorship of one religious tradition by the state in breach of its duty of neutrality amounts to discrimination against all other such traditions,” [64] as well as to a violation of the freedom of religion itself.

Neutrality, Justice Gascon points out, is not expressly guaranteed by either the Canadian Charter or the Québec one. It is, however, the product of “an evolving interpretation of freedom of conscience and religion,” [71] and “requires that the state neither favour nor hinder any particular belief, and the same holds true for non‑belief.” [72] The state’s siding with one group of believers or non-believers necessarily conveys the message that others are disfavoured or unequal. As a result, the state

may not use its powers in such a way as to promote the participation of certain believers or non‑believers in public life to the detriment of others. It is prohibited from adhering to one religion to the exclusion of all others. [76]

This prohibition extends to the state engaging in “religious expression under the guise of cultural or historical reality or heritage.” [78] While Justice Gascon points out that “the Canadian cultural landscape includes many traditional and heritage practices that are religious in nature,” [87] and not all of them are contrary to the duty of neutrality, if the circumstances

reveal an intention to profess, adopt or favour one belief to the exclusion of all others, and if the practice at issue interferes with the freedom of conscience and religion of one or more individuals, it must be concluded that the state has breached its duty of religious neutrality. This is true regardless of whether the practice has a traditional character. [88]

Justice Gascon is careful to specify that “a neutral public space does not mean the homogenization of private players in that space. Neutrality is required of institutions and the state, not individuals.” [74] Indeed, the state must “encourage everyone to participate freely in public life regardless of their beliefs.” [75] However, the duty of neutrality is infringed in cases “[w]here state officials, in the performance of their functions, profess, adopt or favour one belief to the exclusion of all others.” [84]

Applying these principles, Justice Gascon finds that the Tribunal’s conclusion Saguenay prayer amounted to an endorsement of a specific religious position and thus a breach of the City’s duty of neutrality was reasonable. The prayer was unmistakably religious, and was recited by the mayor, who emphasized its religious character. In Justice Gascon’s view,

the recitation of the prayer at the council’s meetings was above all else a use by the council of public powers to manifest and profess one religion to the exclusion of all others. It was much more than the simple expression of a cultural tradition. … [W]hat is at issue here is the state’s adherence, through its officials acting in the performance of their functions, to a religious belief.  [118-19]

As for the fact that, under the by-law, the prayer was held before the official start of the council meetings, so as to allow citizens who did not wish to be present to leave the room and come back, it only “highlights the exclusive effect of the practice.” [101] In short, the City had “turned the [council] meetings into a preferential space for people with theistic beliefs,” [120] which was a more than trivial form of interference with the religious freedom of others, including of course Mr. Simoneau, the complainant, as well as a form of discrimination against them.

Finally, Justice Gascon dismisses a number of other arguments raised by the City and the interveners who supported it. In particular, he states that preventing the state from endorsing a religious position does not amount to forcing it to become agnostic or atheist. Prohibiting the municipal prayer is simply not the equivalent of forcing the City to deny God. The fact that a prayer is non-denominational does not stop its being religious, and thus non-neutral. As for “[t]he reference to the supremacy of God in the preamble to the Canadian Charter,” it “cannot lead to an interpretation of freedom of conscience and religion that authorizes the state to consciously profess a theistic faith.” [147]

In the result, the Supreme Court upholds the Human Rights Tribunal’s orders banning the recitation of the prayer and awarding damages to Mr. Simoneau. It also declares the by-law inoperative and invalid, albeit only vis-à-vis Mr. Simoneau, since an administrative tribunal cannot pronounce a general declaration of invalidity.

* * *

Those who recall my criticism of the Court of Appeal’s decision in this case will not be surprised to learn that I am happy with this outcome. More specifically, I am delighted with the Supreme Court’s strong endorsement of the principle of state neutrality, and with its attention to the concerns, which I raised here, about prayer by officials often being

the product of a familiar public choice problem: officeholders using the powers of their office to advance their personal interests and pet causes, not for the benefit of the public, but rather at its expense.

Justice Gascon’s reasons suggest that this is exactly what he saw the Saguenay mayor, Jean Tremblay, as doing. I am equally happy about the Court’s seeing through the mask of “tradition,” “culture,” and “heritage” which it has been fashionable in Québec to use to hide the state’s support for Catholicism. Indeed, it would be nice if Justice Gascon’s clear-eyed discussion of neutrality prompted Québec’s National Assembly to remove the giant crucifix hanging behind its Speaker’s seat ― though I am not so optimistic as to expect such a thing to happen.

Last but not least, I am also happy with the care Justice Gascon has taken to specify that the duty of neutrality applies not to all persons who find themselves in the public sphere, but to the state and to officials speaking for it. To repeat a passage I have already quoted, neutrality reproves ― “the state’s adherence, through its officials acting in the performance of their functions, to a religious belief,” or the officials’ “use [of] public powers to profess their beliefs.” [119] The fact that an official manifests his or her beliefs “on a personal basis” [119] does not matter. To me, this quite clearly suggests that neutrality does not justify efforts to prevent civil servants from wearing religious clothing or symbols. On the contrary, Justice Gascon’s insistence on the state’s duty to welcome the adherents of a variety of beliefs in public life deserves to be emphasized.

That said, while the general thrust of the decision seems to me quite clear, it may not answer all the questions that the concept of neutrality gives rise to. In particular, it does not articulate very clearly the distinction between those religious manifestations which, because of their predominantly cultural character, do not infringe the principle of neutrality, and those that do, beyond saying that intent matters a lot. This may well be as it should be ― it’s not obvious that there can be a bright dividing line between these categories ― but the debates on this topic will continue.

In any case, even if it does not settle every conceivable question, and despite its perhaps lacking in ringing passages that will capture imaginations, one can hardly have expected a better decision than that which Justice Gascon produced. It is impressive that the Supreme Court’s second-newest member has already made such a mark on its jurisprudence. Today is a great day for religious liberty and equality in Canada and in Québec. Amen.

Quand on se compare

Les traditions tant française qu’américaine de laïcité sont moins monolithiques qu’on ne l’a parfois prétendu. Reste qu’imposer la « neutralité » aux individus est injustifié.

Dans le débat entourant la Charte de la honte que le Parti Québécois proposait il y a un an, on a beaucoup invoqué les traditions française et américaine de la laïcité. La première, a-t-on prétendu, surtout chez les partisans de la Charte de la honte, justifierait l’exclusion des symboles religieux de la sphère gouvernementale, voire de la sphère publique, au nom de la neutralité religieuse. La religion, disait-on, est une affaire privée. Et tant chez les partisans que chez les détracteurs de la Charte de la honte on a contrasté cette vision de la laïcité avec la tradition américaine, ouverte à l’expression religieuse, du moment que l’État lui-même (et non simplement un de ses représentants plus ou moins directs) ne prenait pas position en matière religieuse. (La fameuse lettre de Bernard Drainville et Jean-François Lisée au New York Times, tentant de récupérer l’héritage de Thomas Jefferson pour défendre la Charte avait été largement ridiculisée.) Or, ces deux traditions, ces deux visions de la laïcité, sont moins monolithiques qu’on ne le pense, comme deux récents textes permettent de constater.

Le premier est une entrevue accordée à Sonya Faure de Libération par Stéphanie Hennette-Vauchez et Vincent Valentin, qui soutiennent que les mesures d’exclusion de la religion de l’espace public adoptées par la France ces dix dernières années sont une perversion plutôt que la continuation de la tradition française de laïcité. Les profs. Hennette-Vauchez et Valentin dénoncent une ambiance sociale où « la présence de la religion est désormais jugée insupportable, indépendamment de tout trouble à l’ordre public ou atteinte à la liberté d’autrui » et une « vision de la laïcité [qui] tend à imposer l’obligation de neutralité aux personnes privées » plutôt qu’à l’État. Cette « nouvelle laïcité », expliquent-ils, s’inscrit

dans une logique de contrôle. Elle veut neutraliser tout ce qui, dans le religieux, différencie, singularise. On mobilise la laïcité pour aseptiser le religieux, perçu comme un microbe qui corrompt le vivre-ensemble. Les citoyens devraient renoncer à la part d’eux qui n’est pas commune, dès lors qu’ils entrent dans l’espace public.

Or, selon les profs. Hennette-Vauchez et Valentin, vouloir confiner les manifestations religieuses à la « sphère privée», les éliminer de l’espace public, « n’est pas du tout l’esprit de la loi de 1905 » qui a laïcisé l’État. C’est en fait vouloir effacer la distinction entre l’État et la société, imposant à celle-ci les obligations qui n’incombaient, jusque là, qu’à celui-là. De plus, plutôt que défendre la

liberté […] de croire ou de ne pas croire[,] les partisans de la nouvelle laïcité veulent imposer des restrictions. Ils défendent non pas un droit mais une culture, une certaine manière d’être. On touche déjà à la manière de s’habiller, pourquoi pas bientôt à la manière de manger, ou autre ?

On assiste, en somme, à l’émergence d’ « [u]ne sorte de catéchisme républicain. Derrière la défense de la laïcité, c’est un moralisme national, républicain, politique qui se dessine ». Les restrictions aux libertés individuelles sont justifiées non seulement par la protection des droits d’autrui, mais aussi par « un ordre public immatériel, symbolique [consistant de] valeurs abstraites qui justifient, elles aussi, une restriction de la liberté ». Certes, les considérations morales ont toujours eu un certain rôle à jouer en droit, mais la tendance était à la restriction, sinon à l’élimination de ce rôle. Or, cette tendance s’est désormais inversée.

La logique de contrôle et d’élimination de la différence, faut-il le rappeler, a été bien en évidence dans l’argumentaire déployé au soutien de la Charte de la honte. Force est de constater que ― les profs. Hennette-Vauchez et Valentin ne le disent pas explicitement, mais à mon sens ils le suggèrent fortement ― ce « projet politique » frise le totalitarisme, dont les différentes formes ― fasciste, communiste, religieuse ― ont justement pour parmi les principales caractéristiques communes la fusion entre l’État et la société, ainsi que le moralisme omniprésent et liberticide. Or, les profs. Hennette-Vauchez et Valentin nous permettent de comprendre que, contrairement à ce que les zélotes de la laïcité voudraient nous faire croire, ce n’est ni une conséquence nécessaire de la tradition française de la laïcité ni une lecture universellement partagée de celle-ci.

Le second texte que je voulais aborder dans ce billet présente quant à lui un aspect moins connu de la tradition américaine de laïcité. Il s’agit d’un billet de Eugene Volokh, qui discute une plainte visant un professeur d’une école publique de la Pennsylvanie qui porte un collier avec une étoile de David. Comme l’explique le prof. Volokh, une loi de la Pennsylvanie interdit effectivement le port de « tout vêtement, signe, emblème ou insigne indiquant que ledit enseignant est un membre ou adhérant d’un quelconque ordre, secte ou dénomination religieux » (je traduis, ici et plus bas). Au moins un autre État, l’Oregon, a déjà eu une loi semblable, bien qu’il l’ait abrogée en 2010. Qui plus est, ces lois ont été jugées constitutionnelles par des Circuit courts (mais non, quant au fond, par la Cour supême). Pas Thomas Jefferson, donc, mais il y a bien aux États-Unis un courant de pensée ― si minoritaire soit-il ― voulant que le port de symboles religieux par les professeurs des écoles publiques pourrait être perçu comme un positionnement de l’État en faveur de la religion.

Cependant, comme l’explique le prof. Volokh, la loi de la Pennsylvanie est probablement inconstitutionnelle, et la décision contraire du 3e Circuit, erronée, l’interdiction du port de symboles religieux par des employés individuels n’étant pas nécessaire pour dissiper une telle perception. (D’ailleurs, s’appuyant sur une jurisprudence qui la remet en question, l’école a refusé de donner suite à la plainte contre le professeur au collier à l’étoile de David.) Comme le dit le prof. Volokh, un enfant qui comprend qu’un vêtement ou un bijou reflète une affiliation religieuse doit aussi pouvoir comprendre que des personnes de religions différentes travaillent au sein d’un même établissement, et que cela ne signifie pas que l’établissement est affilié avec toutes ces religions:

De façon générale, les vêtements et les bijoux ne sont pas perçus par ceux qui les voient, même par de jeunes personnes, comme des tentatives [de la part de ceux qui les portent] de persuader les autres de la vérité de leur religion. En fait, tous les États sauf la Pennsylvanie permettent aux enseignants de porter des bijoux ou des couvre-chefs religieux et des objets semblables, et je ne connais aucune preuve de ce que les élèves dans ces États perçoivent ça comme un positionnement en faveur de la religion de la part de l’école.

Et même si cela n’était pas vrai pour de très jeunes étudiants, il faudrait restreindre l’interdiction à ceux qui leur enseignent. Un adolescent, dit le prof. Volokh, peut assurément comprendre

que l’école peut employer des professeurs ouvertement catholiques, des professeurs ouvertement juifs et des professeurs ouvertement musulmans, sans endosser l’une ou l’autre religion.

(Et dire que le PQ voulait imposer les même interdictions dans les universités!) Du reste, souligne le prof. Volokh, dans la mesure ou de jeunes élèves pourraient ne pas le comprendre, l’école devrait tout simplement expliquer que les enseignants sont libres de s’identifier à une religion de leur choix, sans que l’école ne les encourage ni ne les condamne:

Même pour de jeunes élèves, ce n’est pas une leçon difficile, et elle vaut probablement la peine d’être enseignée. Et on peut l’enseigner sans discriminer contre des pratiques religieuses et sans exclure, dans les faits, des enseignants qui se sentent motivés ou obligés de porter des vêtements ou des bijoux religieux.

Cette leçon, les apôtres de la Charte de la honte et les tenants de la « nouvelle laïcité » plus généralement feraient bien de l’apprendre une fois pour toutes. En fait, on se rend bien compte, en lisant le billet du prof. Volokh, que la thèse que ces derniers défendent, la thèse voulant qu’il est nécessaire, pour préserver la neutralité religieuse de l’État, d’exclure la religion des institutions gouvernementales, voire de l’espace public, est non seulement liberticide et discriminatoire, mais aussi carrément infantilisante. Prétendre que les citoyens ne sont pas capables de distinguer une croyance individuelle d’une prise de position officielle, c’est les mépriser.

Quand on compare le débat québécois sur la laïcité à la situation en France et aux États-Unis, on peut se consoler. Non pas parce que les choses sont pires ailleurs (elles le sont, me semble-t-il, en France, mais ce n’est pas une consolation), mais bien parce qu’on constate que, si les idées liberticides qu’on observe chez nous sont , hélas, universelles, la résistance à ces idées l’est tout autant. Et si l’exemple français nous montre combien cette résistance peut être difficile, l’exemple américain suggère qu’elle peut, et doit, triompher.

NB: Je remercie Jean-François Gaudreault-DesBiens pour le lien vers l’article de Libération


Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Will Baude has posted the text of a proclamation issued by George Washington, then the President of the United States, in 1789, to call for national Thanksgiving celebrations, and an excerpt from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson in 1808, when he was President, to explain his refusal to issue a similar proclamation. These are short but fascinating texts. They are also most topical for us, because they neatly summarize the competing positions in the municipal prayer case which the Supreme Court is now considering, Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (Ville de).

Washington asserted that “it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor.” The submissions of those who argued in favour of the permissibility of the prayer, especially the interveners, and pointed to the Preamble of the Constitution Act, 1982, which states that “Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God” echo this assertion. (These words in the Preamble, for their part, incongruous as they might seem in a constitutional document, somehow echo Washington’s thanks to God “for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government.”)

Jefferson, by contrast, argued that as “the government of the U S. [is] interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises,” he could not even “recommend” a religious “exercise” such as a Thanksgiving celebration. For even a recommendation emanating from the government

must be meant too that this recommendation is to carry some authority, and to be sanctioned by some penalty on those who disregard it; not indeed of fine and imprisonment, but of some degree of proscription perhaps in public opinion. And does the change in the nature of the penalty make the recommendation the less a law of conduct for those to whom it is directed? [Underlining in the original]

This is the position taken by those who are challenging the prayer: even though participation in and even attendance at the prayer is voluntary, it has an exclusionary effect on, a “proscription in public opinion” against, those who do not take part.

My own sympathies lies firmly with Jefferson here, but I think that it is important to acknowledge the pedigree, and the good faith, of the contrary position. The question before the Supreme Court is not an easy one.

On an unrelated note, I cannot resist highlighting a couple of phrases in Washington’s proclamation, which show that, as I have already explained here, the purported difference of national character between the Americans, who believe in “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” and Canadians, who believe in “peace, order and good government” is blown out of proportion by our romantic nationalists. Washington thanked God “for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have … enjoyed,” and implored Him to “bless [all Sovereigns and Nations] with good government, peace, and concord.” So there.

Finally, to my American readers, a happy Thanksgiving. I am grateful for your support!

What to Thump

This morning the Supreme Court heard the oral argument in Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (Ville de), a case on the validity, under the Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms of a municipal by-law authorizing the mayor and those municipal councillors who wish it to publicly read a prayer just prior to the official start of business at municipal council meetings. An additional issue is the permissibility of an installation of religious symbols ― a sculpture of the Sacred Heart and a crucifix in the hall where the council meets. It is hard to tell which way the argument went. Indeed, my own impression, for what little it’s worth, is that at its conclusion, the Court was left with just as many questions as it had in the beginning, and the parties did not do much to help it answer the difficult questions the case presents.

Whether deliberately or because he did not know better, the appellants’ lawyer focused almost exclusively on the “small” questions ― the standard of review, the Court of Appeal’s dismissal of the appellants’ expert’s opinion, which had been accepted by the Human Rights Tribunal, which heard the matter in the first instance, and the effect of the prayer and the surrounding controversy on the individual complainant, Alain Simoneau. Even when Justice Lebel directly told him that the Court was interested in the broader questions of principle, the appellants’ lawyer more or less ignored him and stuck to his chosen themes. For him, the case is just an ordinary discrimination complaint and should be treated as such. The Human Rights tribunal heard the evidence and interpreted its home statute; it is entitled to deference; end of story. The big debate about state neutrality? That’s just incidental, he told Justice Lebel; and anyway, he added to an incredulous Justice Wagner, nobody is really against state neutrality or in favour of a state religion. The implications for the prayer at the House of Commons? Well, there are no municipal services being offered at the House of Commons, and the municipal legislation saying anyone is entitled to participate does not apply, so it’s not the same. The preamble to the Constitution Act, 1982, which mentions says that “Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God”? But the mayor of Saguenay wasn’t reciting the preamble! Do you have a test for us to distinguish cultural and religious manifestations, asked Justice Wagner. No, Justice, each case must be considered on its own facts.

The other parties, however, were more than happy to speak of general principles. They did not always succeed at staying at that level however.

The Canadian Secular Alliance, which intervened to support the appellants, tried to draw a line between official or state action, and the personal manifestations of faith by public employees or even officers. In the former area, religion is proscribed; in the latter it is permitted and indeed may have to be accommodated. It also pointed out that the freedom of religion jurisprudence has moved from a concern only with coercion to one with exclusion, even in the absence of coercion. Even if official prayer is not coercive, it is exclusionary, and thus impermissible.

The Canadian Civil Liberty Liberties Association, for its part, wanted to stress that even a non-denominational prayer is still a religious manifestation. But what’s the big deal with it, anyway, asked Justice Moldaver. Is there some sort of objective standard by which we can judge an interference with a person’s religious freedom? Shouldn’t we just put up with these little things? If the purpose of the state action is religious, the CCLA argued, then its effects are irrelevant. But the whole point, said the Chief Justice, is that we have trouble defining where the “religious” starts. And the CCLA, no more than the appellants, didn’t have a general test for the Courts. Triers of fact can handle that, in light of all the circumstances.

The respondents, for their part, spent a considerable amount of time discussing the meaning of laïcité and state neutrality, although they started by asserting that rather than these principles, it is their limits that are really at issue in this case. And limits there must be, lest we lose our collective frame of reference and end up lost in something called either “radical liberalism” or “unalloyed multiculturalism.” The state must not enforce religious observance of course, but it can have its own religious “colour,” which reflects its history and tradition. That’s what prayer by-law does. And as for the mayor doing the sign of the cross while reciting it, well, people do that sort of thing all time, even baseball players. But, Justice Wagner pointed out, the mayor isn’t just a baseball player. Doesn’t it matter, Justice Lebel asked, that the state not identify with a religion? But the Constitution says the Canadian state is founded on a recognition of the supremacy of God, the respondents argued. It is a theistic state. So long as the prayer is just theistic, it is within the bounds of what the state itself is. And its generically theistic text is what matters, not whatever gestures the mayor might make while reciting it. Anyway, the prayer by-law ― unlike the Lord’s Day Act that was struck down in  R. v. Big M Drug Mart,  [1985] 1 S.C.R. 295 ― is not coercive. And the fact public officials invoke the help of God isn’t at all unusual ― they all do it when they swear their oaths of office, even judges.

For the Evangelical Fellowship, the case is about the nature of a secular society and the place of religion in such a society. A secular society, it argued, is not one devoid of religion, or one where religion has been confined to the private sphere. It is non-sectarian ― but not non-religious. Justice Moldaver wondered, at that point, about a “prayer” by a secularist public official, expressing gratitude for the blessings of Canadian society and saying that none of them have anything to do with a God in which we don’t believe anyway. Would that be OK? It wouldn’t, the Fellowship asserted. But is that different from the Saguenay mayor’s expressing gratitude to God? Well, we cannot favour a specific worldview. So, Justice Abella asked, the state cannot  favour religion over non-religion? No, you have to look at the facts. We have prayers ― and the God Save the Queen, too ― at Remembrance Day ceremonies. And there can be a role for religion in the performance of public officials’ duties, so long these duties are carried out in a neutral fashion. To hold otherwise is to favour non-religion.

Finally, a group of Christian organizations argued that the Court, and everyone, could really have it both ways. Rights need not be weighed and made to prevail one over another ― they can be reconciled. Non-denominational prayer is a form of reconciliation; it allows the state not to sponsor religion while not excluding it. Banning the prayer leaves atheists and agnostics in control of the public square. Let’s all live in harmony instead, without winners and losers.

If there’s one thing we can be pretty sure of, it’s that this wish, or prayer, or whatever it was ― Justice Abella spent some time with the various lawyers wondering what the differences between wishes and prayers were ― will not be granted. Both sides have the same complaint: their opponents want to own the public square, and to exclude them. For the secularists, allowing even a non-denominational prayer to continue means ongoing exclusion, subjectively anyway. The only way reconciliation could happen would be for both sides not to take this whole business too seriously, as Justice Moldaver suggested ― but nobody, I suspect, will take up that suggestion.

And if there must be a winner and a loser, who should it be? There is an old litigation adage: if you have the facts, thump the facts; if you have the law, thump the law; if don’t have either, thump the table. It seems to me, however, that at the Supreme Court, the winning arguments will have a bit of everything ― fact-thumping, law-thumping, and table thumping. This morning, nobody had all three. The appellants, though they made a good case on the facts, and a half-decent one on the law, steadfastly refused to thump the table. The respondents shied away from the facts, which are not exactly favourable to them. And even the interveners could not bring it all together. The Court was looking for a general, thumping principle to dispose of the case ― some kind of demarcation between the the formerly-religious-but-effectively-cultural, the trivially-and-therefore-tolerably religious, and the impermissibly religious. It did not get that.

Le sens de la laïcité

L’actualité a publié sur son blogue politique un billet de Frédéric Bastien appelant à la poursuite du débat sur la « laïcité » et défendant la pertinence de la Charte de la honte, alias Charte de laïcité, alias Charte des valeurs, proposée par l’ancien gouvernement péquiste. Malheureusement, comme bien d’autres interventions des partisans de cette charte, telles que les mensonges de son auteur, Bernard Drainville, au sujet des avis juridiques qu’il aurait prétendument obtenus à son sujet, le texte de M. Bastien s’appuie sur une distorsion profonde de la réalité. Contrairement à ce qu’il prétend, le droit canadien, y compris la Charte canadienne des droits et libertés, s’opposent non pas à la laïcité, mais à une conception particulière de la laïcité, que M. Bastien représente à tort comme la seule accepté ou acceptable.

M. Bastien fait grand cas d’une récente décision de la Cour européenne des droits de l’homme statuant que la loi française interdisant le port du voile intégral en public n’enfreint pas la liberté de religion ou, plus exactement, qu’elle cadre dans la marge d’appréciation que ce tribunal transnational laisse aux États dans la mise en œuvre de leurs obligations en matière de droits de la personne. (J’ai critiqué cette décision ici, l’estimant fondée sur un raisonnement essentiellement totalitaire.) Au Canada, une telle interdiction générale serait inconstitutionnelle car contraire à la garantie de liberté de religion de la Charte canadienne. Prenant la Cour européenne en exemple, M. Bastien soutient donc «que la classe juridique canadienne et ses alliés dans les médias ne détiennent pas le monopole de la vérité sur ce sujet ». En fait, selon lui, ces classes juridique et médiatique « s’opposent très majoritairement à la laïcité ».

C’est faux. Il n’est pas sans intérêt de rappeler qu’une des toutes premières décisions de la Cour suprême à appliquer la Charte canadienne, R. c. Big M Drug Mart, était une affirmation sans équivoque du principe de la laïcité, en ce qu’il rejetait l’imposition par le législateur des croyances d’une religion à l’ensemble du public ― en l’occurrence, la croyance chrétienne concernant le caractère sacré du dimanche, protégé par la Loi sur le dimanche (Lord’s Day Act, dans sa version anglaise). C’est sur cet arrêt que s’appuie l’ensemble de jurisprudence canadienne en matière de liberté religieuse. Et, si tant est que l’on puisse imputer une opinion unique à l’ensemble des journalistes et des juristes canadiens, personne d’eux ne s’oppose au principe voulant que l’État doit être neutre en matière religieuse et qu’il ne peut donc ni privilégier ni pénaliser une opinion religieuse (y compris, bien sûr, l’incroyance) plus que les autres.

Au-delà de ce principe généralement accepté et général, il reste des questions complexes sur lesquelles il existe des désaccords profonds. L’État manque-t-il à son devoir de neutralité, et enfreint-il donc la laïcité, lorsqu’il subventionne des écoles religieuses qui dispensent aussi un enseignement laïc? L’État doit-il accommoder des personnes aux croyances desquelles une loi généralement applicable impose un fardeau particulièrement lourd? Comment réconcilier la liberté religieuse et l’égalité? Ces questions méritent bien de faire l’objet de débats sérieux, mais la simple invocation du terme « laïcité » ne nous aidera pas à y répondre.

En effet, il n’existe pas de définition unique de ce concept. Pour M. Bastien, la laïcité consiste apparemment à interdire le voile intégral. Pour Bernard Drainville, elle consiste apparemment à garder un crucifix bien en vue à l’Assemblée nationale. Pour l’ex-candidate péquiste Louise Mailloux, à propager des théories du complot antisémites et islamophobes et à comparer le baptême au viol. Cependant, ces visions de la laïcité ― du reste, fort différentes les unes des autres ― ne sont pas les seules qui soient.

On peut aussi défendre une vision de la laïcité qui ne cherche pas à exclure l’expression de croyances religieuses, y compris des croyances religieuses minoritaires et impopulaires, de l’espace public. Une vision de la laïcité attentive au fait qu’une telle exclusion pèse plus lourd sur certains groupes religieux, dont la foi requiert le port de certains symboles visibles, que sur d’autres, dont celui qui se trouve à être majoritaire au Québec. Une vision de la laïcité fondée sur la conviction que la diversité d’une société est une richesse à mettre en valeur et non danger à refouler. Une vision de la laïcité, donc, qui la voit comme une contrainte à imposer à l’État et non aux citoyens.

M. Bastien a raison de d’affirmer que le débat sur les rapports entre la religion et l’État n’est pas terminé au Québec, pas plus qu’il ne l’est ailleurs, d’autant plus que, contrairement à ce qu’il laisse entendre, la montée du fondamentalisme religieux n’est pas la seule cause de conflit dans ce domaine. L’expansion de la réglementation de l’État, son intrusion dans de nouveaux domaines d’activités autrefois privées y est aussi pour beaucoup. Cependant, si le but visé est une société plus juste plutôt qu’une simple victoire partisane, il faut reconnaître qu’il s’agit d’un débat sur le sens à donner à la laïcité plutôt que d’une confrontation entre défendeurs et adversaires de cette valeur, en réalité, commune.

Le visage de l’oppression

Dans une décision rendue hier, S.A.S. c. France, la Cour européenne des droits de l’homme a statué que l’interdiction du voile intégral par la France n’enfreint pas la garantie de liberté religieuse de la Convention européenne des droits l’homme. Bien que les juges majoritaires soient manifestement sceptiques d’au moins certains des arguments invoqués au soutien de l’interdiction, ils acceptent (non sans hésitation), qu’un gouvernement démocratiquement élu peut raisonnablement conclure que celle-ci est nécessaire pour assurer la capacité des citoyens de vivre ensemble, et de protéger ainsi leurs droits, et qu’elle constitue donc une limite à la liberté de religion acceptable dans une société démocratique. J’aimerais commenter brièvement le raisonnement de la Cour, parce que les arguments qu’elle a acceptés ont trouvé écho de ce côté-ci de l’Atlantique. Ces arguments, pourtant, relèvent d’une pensée dangereusement oppressive.

Il faut souligner, cependant, que la Cour européenne a rejeté certains des arguments les plus communs au soutien des interdictions, plus ou moins étendues, du voile et d’autres « symboles religieux ostentatoires ». Le besoin d’assurer la sécurité peut justifier de demander aux personnes voilées de retirer leur voile pour être identifiées mais, sauf situation de crise, pas une interdiction générale. L’égalité entre les hommes et les femmes ne saurait être invoquée pour

interdire une pratique que des femmes – telle la requérante – revendiquent dans le cadre de l’exercice des droits [protégés], sauf à admettre que l’on puisse à ce titre prétendre protéger des individus contre l’exercice de leurs propres droits et libertés fondamentaux. (Par. 119)

Quant à la dignité humaine, il n’y a

aucun élément susceptible de conduire à considérer que les femmes qui portent le voile intégral entendent exprimer une forme de mépris à l’égard de ceux qu’elles croisent ou porter autrement atteinte à la dignité d’autrui. (Par. 120)

L’argument que la Cour accepte ― qu’elle dit « p[ouvoir] comprendre » ―, c’est que l’interdiction du voile intégrale sert à prévenir

des pratiques ou des attitudes mettant fondamentalement en cause la possibilité de relations interpersonnelles ouvertes qui, en vertu d’un consensus établi, est un élément indispensable à la vie collective au sein de la société considérée. La Cour peut donc admettre que la clôture qu’oppose aux autres le voile cachant le visage soit perçue par l’État défendeur comme portant atteinte au droit d’autrui d’évoluer dans un espace de sociabilité facilitant la vie ensemble. (Par. 122)

La Cour accepte la prétention de la France à l’effet que l’interdiction du voile intégral sert à assurer le maintien de « conditions minimales de vivre-ensemble », parce qu’il est possible qu’

un État juge essentiel d’accorder dans ce cadre une importance particulière à l’interaction entre les individus et qu’il considère qu’elle se trouve altérée par le fait que certains dissimulent leur visage dans l’espace public. (Par. 141)

J’admets, volontiers, que l’interaction avec une personne dont le visage est voilée peut mettre mal à l’aise. Cependant, un malaise qu’on peut éprouver  face au voile intégral ne saurait justifier son interdiction générale. Je doute, en fait, que même dans les contextes où l’interaction n’est pas volontaire ― comme elle l’est, par exemple, pour un citoyen qui fait face à une fonctionnaire voilée ― le malaise que peut éprouver le citoyen, si compréhensible soit-il, soit une meilleure justification pour une interdiction que le malaise qu’on pu éprouver bien des gens dans le passé, et que certains éprouvent encore, face à la nécessité d’interagir avec une personne d’une autre race. Du reste, ceux qui soutiennent l’interdiction du voile sont les premiers à refuser toute concession à une personne qui refuserait d’interagir avec une fonctionnaire (ou un médecin, etc.) femme. La même logique ― le malaise face à la différence n’est pas un sentiment qu’une société égalitaire doit accommoder ― milite contre l’interdiction du voile même pour les fonctionnaires.

Quoi qu’il en soit, il faut davantage que de la sympathie pour les personnes contraintes à vivre un malaise pour justifier l’interdiction du voile intégral non seulement pour les personnes avec qui d’autres pourraient forcées d’interagir, mais pour quiconque se trouve dans l’espace public. À cet égard, le raisonnement de la Cour européenne est doublement pernicieux. D’une part, la prétention, que l’État puisse définir les « conditions minimales de vivre ensemble » sans égard à ce que les personnes qui vivent ensemble en pensent elles-mêmes est essentiellement totalitaire. Si j’accepte d’interagir, dans mes rapports privés, avec une personne voilée, de quel droit l’État peut-il me dire que je ne peux pas le faire? Le raisonnement accepté par la Cour autoriserait, par exemple, l’interdiction de l’usage de langues autres que celle de la majorité, et que sais-je encore. D’autre part, il y a également quelque chose de totalitaire à prétendre qu’il y a un quelconque « droit » d’entrer dans une « relation interpersonnelle ouverte » avec une autre personne, que cette personne le veuille ou non, droit que le port du voile par celle-ci compromettrait. Au contraire, si une personne ne veut pas interagir avec autrui, elle a parfaitement le droit de ne pas le faire. Si elle le manifeste, que ce soit par le port du voile ou d’une autre façon, c’est son affaire.

Les gouvernements qui imposent les interdictions sur le voile intégral, et les tribunaux qui avalisent ces interdictions, ne font pas que forcer des femmes à dévoiler leur visage. Ils dévoilent aussi le leur. Et c’est celui de l’oppression.

ADDENDUM: J’ai publié ce billet sans avoir pris le temps de lire le jugement dissident. Or, celui-ci affirme, fort justement (aux pars. 8-9) qu’

on peut difficilement prétendre que tout individu ait un droit d’entrer en contact avec d’autres personnes dans l’espace public contre la volonté de celles-ci. Sinon, pareil droit devrait avoir une obligation pour corollaire, ce qui serait incompatible avec l’esprit de la Convention. Si la communication est essentielle pour la vie en société, le droit au respect de la vie privée comprend également le droit de ne pas communiquer et de ne pas entrer en contact avec autrui dans l’espace public – en somme, le droit d’être un « outsider ».

 Il est vrai que le « vivre ensemble » requiert la possibilité d’échanges interpersonnels. Il est également vrai que le visage joue un rôle important dans les interactions humaines. Mais cette idée ne peut pas être détournée pour justifier la conclusion selon laquelle aucune interaction humaine n’est possible si le visage est intégralement dissimulé. Nous en voulons pour preuves des exemples parfaitement admis dans la culture européenne, tels que le port de casques intégraux pour la pratique du ski et de la moto, ou le port de costumes pendant le carnaval. Nul ne prétendrait qu’en pareilles situations (qui font partie des exceptions prévues par le droit français) les exigences minimales de la vie en société ne soient pas respectées. Les personnes socialisent sans forcément se regarder dans les yeux.