Bill respecting the laicity of the State

The government of the CAQ finally adopted the bill respecting the laicity of the State. This law provoked intense and emotional debates that went beyond the traditional “left-right” fracture lines.  Even within the Conservative Party of Québec, opinions diverge, and discussions have been lively. I propose to discuss here the principles of the law and to add my humble opinion on this thorny subject. I will limit my discussion primarily to restrictions on rights and freedoms imposed on Quebecers by the law.

The Constitution of our Party describes our core values. Values ​​are the essential and enduring foundations of our party. It may be - yes! - that our values ​​make us lose votes or that they do not attract a majority in the polls. But we still must cherish and defend them passionately because they represent what we know, in our soul and conscience, to be the right thing to do.

Our Constitution says that the freedom of individuals is the fundamental political value of the Conservative Party of Québec. We defend fundamental rights and liberties against encroachments of the State. It should be noted that “liberty” is not so much the exercise of one's will than the right of not being subjected to the will of others. Therefore, when the government acts, it must always ask itself whether its action increases or restricts the liberty of individuals.

Let’s examine the new law on laicity through the prism of our values.

The new law has two main restrictions. First, persons who present themselves to receive a service from a government employee must have their face uncovered where doing so is necessary to allow their identity to be verified or for security reasons. That goes without saying. A private company should have the right to deal with whatever customer it wants but when the government provides services (especially if it is in a monopolistic situation), it must not be able to discriminate unless it has good reasons - and those named in the law are clearly justified.

But the law also requires that these employees must exercise their functions with their own face uncovered, whether they be customer facing or not. In the private sector, an employer has management rights that allow him, inter alia, to impose a dress code to meet the operational needs of the business but he must do so with the least possible restriction of religious freedoms. I have never seen government employees wearing a niqab but I can understand that, for example, the SAQ does not want a clerk at the cash register wearing a niqab! On the other hand, I do not see how one can justify such a restriction for operational purposes in the case, for example, of a clerical employee who works in the second basement of an anonymous government building and who has no contact with the public.

The second part of the law seeks to ban "religious signs" (visible or concealed) to employees of the government who are "in authority" and who are not protected by the grandfather clause (therefore hired after March 27, 2019). Employees in authority generally include those involved in the justice system (judges, commissioners, arbitrators, lawyers and prosecutors, peace officers) and, in addition, include teachers in an educational institution under the jurisdiction a school board.

The Bouchard-Taylor Commission had proposed that people with coercive power – those who could take away someone’s freedom, such as a judge, a prison guard or a police officer - should not display religious symbols, for fear of violating the appearance of impartiality that they must exhibit in their functions. It is doubtful that the mere fact that a judge wearing a religious sign is sufficient to rebut the presumption of impartiality which he enjoys but this compromise may seem acceptable because in the system of administration of justice, litigants have the fundamental right to be judged by judges and other agents of the State who are not only impartial but seem to be impartial . It can therefore be argued that there is an important operational need for the State to ensure that appearance of impartiality.

But in my opinion, the CAQ government is going too far by broadening the notion of being “in authority” to teachers. Extending the ban to teachers does not meet an operational need of the employer. If we fear that our children are influenced by religious symbols worn by their teachers, one could simply enshrine in the law an obligation to the effect that, while being able to wear religious signs, teachers must not proselytise and should not suggest that by wearing a religious sign, the State that employs them promotes or supports their religion.

State secularism does not mean employee secularism. The State must be neutral, i.e. it must neither support nor favor a religious exercise - any more than the decision not to practice any religion. What State employees should not do is to let people believe, by wearing a religious sign, that the State they represent approves of their religion or is not neutral.

In conclusion, the Bouchard-Taylor compromise remains, in my opinion, an approach more in keeping with the principles set out in our Constitution than those enunciated by the Legault government's new law on secularism.

 

Adrien Pouliot

Leader

Conservative Party of Québec

June 2019


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