LEAF opposes the Québec government’s Bill 21, “An Act respecting the laicity of the State”, which passed on June 16, 2019. This Bill restricts the wearing of religious symbols with the goal of affirming Québec as a secular state.

In particular, Bill 21:
1. Restricts anyone working in a position of authority in the public sector, including judges, lawyers, police and teachers, from wearing ‘religious symbols’;
2. Requires public sector employees to exercise their functions with their faces uncovered;
3. Requires anyone accessing a public service to do so with their faces uncovered;
4. Invokes the notwithstanding clause, limiting the ability to challenge the law’s infringement of Charter rights.

This Bill disproportionately targets women, and particularly Muslim women, impairing their equality rights and excluding them from being full participants in Québec society. By requiring all public sector employees, and those accessing public services to have their faces uncovered, niqab-wearing Muslim women will have fewer employment opportunities, including in education and child care. Niqab-wearing women will also be denied access to public services that will be available to others in Québec society.

LEAF is very concerned that the passage of Bill 21 has emboldened Islamophobic rhetoric in Québec, particularly the gendered aspects of Islamophobia, which uniquely affect Muslim women who wear indicators of their faith. Since Bill 21 was tabled, media sources indicate that there have been reports of upwards of 40 women experiencing discrimination and harassment. The government of Québec should protect all women in the province, rather than create a platform to help justify further discrimination and abuse.

The government’s regulation of what women can wear and how they can present themselves in public undermines women’s freedom of expression and their personal autonomy, by limiting their choices regarding what they do with their own bodies. The blanket restriction on wearing ‘religious symbols’ by those working in positions of authority in the public sector seems both vague and overbroad, and risks further discrimination and sexism.

LEAF is particularly troubled by the Québec government’s decision to invoke the notwithstanding clause in passing this Bill, making judicial review of the Bill and the ways it breaches Charter rights, including the right to equality under s 15 of the Charter, all the more challenging. The government has indicated that it chose to do so in order to protect the popular will of the Québec people. In a constitutional democracy such as Canada, governments should seek to protect the rights of all, including the most marginalized, and not succumb to the will of the majority. The courts serve a key purpose in ensuring governments act in a manner that is consistent with Charter values. Invoking the notwithstanding clause to insulate government action from Charter scrutiny sets a troubling precedent. This Bill, which so clearly will have a disproportionate impact on women should be open to review by the courts.

Just as LEAF opposed the proposed “Québec Charter of Values” in 2013, and Québec’s Bill 64 in 2017, LEAF is now opposed to Bill 21, which again attempts to undermine the freedom of expression and autonomy of women, particularly Muslim women. Like the previous Bills, Bill 21 will interfere with Muslim women’s ability to secure employment, achieve promotions, complete their studies, access child care, and generally participate equally in Québec society. Indeed, by excluding the wearing of all religious symbols by those in positions of authority, Bill 21 goes further than earlier legislative forays, creating vague and confusing requirements and opening the door to subjective and discriminatory interpretations.

LEAF calls on the Québec government to repeal Bill 21, and to focus on eliminating the significant barriers that impede the achievement of the substantive equality for all women, particularly the most marginalized such as Muslim women.

At the very least, LEAF implores the government of Québec to remove the notwithstanding clause from Bill 21 to allow the courts to determine whether the legislation is consistent with core Charter values, including the right to equality under s 15.

About Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF)
LEAF is committed to challenging all forms of discrimination against women through legal action, public education and law reform under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. For more information, visit our website: www.leaf.ca