The Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse, a Canadian human rights watchdog, on Thursday panned a Charter of Quebec Values proposed by the Parti Québécois as an infringement on religious liberty.
The commission, an independent organization established under Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms in 1976, took issue with the terms of the new charter, depicting them as representing a “break with the quasi-constitutional” text of the charter.
The most controversial of the proposed measures, a ban on the wearing of “conspicuous” religious symbols by government workers, “does not meet the Quebec charter test,” the commission asserted. In addition, the rights watchdog stated that an additional “proposal to formalize ‘religious’ accommodations could restrict the scope of accommodations granted on the basis of other grounds of discrimination, including for disabled people.”
“In its comments released [on Thursday], the commission concludes that the government’s proposals are contrary to the spirit and the letter of the charter, which is designed to protect the rights of everyone,” the commission said.
As such, a ban on religious symbols would not withstand a challenge in court, the commission predicted. Canadian federal politicians have already indicated their willingness to go to court should the new charter be passed into law.
The Commission explained that the Parti Québécois misunderstood the nature of state secularism and that the “proposed prohibition of religious symbols stems from a misconception regarding freedom of religion as protected by the charter and in international law.”
State neutrality in matters of religion, it explained, places an obligation on state institutions but not on employees, except insofar as they have a duty of “reserve and impartiality.”
“It is unreasonable to presume the partiality of a public sector employee due to the simple fact that he or she wears a religious symbol,” the commission asserted.
“Would the government’s proposal not end up increasing the marginalization of women who already face major discriminatory barriers in the workplace because of the stigmas associated with their religion or their ethnic origin?” the commission’s twenty one page critique of the charter asked.
Bernard Drainville, a minister in the Quebecois provincial government and the leading proponent of the proposed charter, was quoted by the Globe and Mail as saying that he found it “surprising” that the Commission found “the status quo acceptable.”
“We are proposing to change the charter to enshrine the principle of religious neutrality. The commission has based its judgment based on the current charter without considering the changes we are going to make,” Drainville told the French language newspaper La Presse, according to a translation published in The Star.
In an article published on the Huffington Post on Friday, former Canadian Justice Minister Irwin Cotler praised the commission for “delivering one of the most forceful rebukes yet to the Parti Québécois’ Charter of Quebec Values.”
“An accessory worn by an employee does not in itself compromise the neutrality of an institution,” he wrote. “As long as judges with kippas enforce the Civil Code and not the Torah, and as long as teachers in hijabs follow the provincial curriculum and not the Koran, state neutrality remains unharmed.”
Even should the charter be passed and subsequently struck down, he said, damage would already have been done to “Quebec’s international standing and social harmony” and would result in “apprehension and insecurity [among] minorities.”