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.