Canadian Jews denounce ban on wearing religious symbols

Charter designed to cement a secular society draws fire from critics citing infringement on civil liberties.

israeli girl with star of david painted on face 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
israeli girl with star of david painted on face 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Jewish groups condemned a ban on the wearing of “conspicuous religious symbols” by public workers that was unveiled this week during the presentation of a Charter of Quebec Values.
Designed to cement a secular society, the charter is being pushed by the Canadian province’s government.
The charter was leaked to the press several weeks ago but was official presented only on Tuesday. It has drawn fire for what critics are calling its infringements on civil liberties.
The pro-independence government of the predominantly French-speaking province says the charter will help create a distinct identity for its 8 million people and “entrench the religious neutrality of the state.”
The ban on prominent crucifixes, hijabs, nikabs, burkas, turbans and yarmulkes would apply to groups such as teachers, police officers, civil servants, hospital staff, judges and prison workers.
Official documents give the nod to discreet religious symbols, such as a small crucifix or a ring with the Star of David, but not to veils, large crucifixes or turbans.
The Quebec branch of The Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs, an advocacy group representing a number of Canadian Jewish federations, said that the proposed laws “run contrary to the provisions enshrined by the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
Such a move is “unacceptable,” the group stated on its website on Tuesday. “The separation of Church and State has existed in Quebec for many years. CIJA-Quebec sees no need at this time to bring forward new laws on the secular nature of the Quebec public sector. The prohibition of wearing religious symbols in the public and para-public service is not justified, and would exclude a large number of Quebecers.
The role of the state should be to bring people together, not to divide them.”
Bernard Drainville, the Quebec minister of democratic institutions, said that if the state is neutral, then those who work for it must be neutral too.
“That’s why the government of Quebec is proposing to ban public employees from wearing ostentatious religious symbols during work hours,” he said at a news conference on Tuesday.
“We’re talking about very obvious symbols... which send a clear message: ‘I am a believer and this is my religion.’” The government’s website laid out the reasoning behind the new charter, which would mandate amending the province’s charter of human rights, explaining that “a number of high-profile religious accommodation cases have given rise to a profound discomfort in Quebec” and that, as a result, “to maintain social peace and promote harmony we must prevent tensions from growing.”
The prohibition on “the wearing of overt and conspicuous religious symbols by state personnel... would reflect the state’s neutrality,” according to the government website.
However, it appears that some public displays of religion will still be permitted, including Christmas trees in public offices and a large crucifix in the National Assembly, which Drainville said reflect Quebec’s culture.
Both Canadian Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenny and Transport Minister Denis Lebel spoke out against the charter, indicating that the federal government is ready to challenge the law in court, should it pass.
Kenny told reporters that the Justice Department would be examining the charter for constitutional violations and that if any Canadian’s right’s are deemed to be violated, the government “will defend those rights vigorously.”
“Obviously, the separatist government in Quebec would like to pick a fight with the federal government any time on any issue,” he said.
“They’re trying to remove religious freedoms. They’re trying to impose rules on religious values,” said Harvey Levine, president of the Quebec branch of B’nai Brith.
The fraternal Jewish organization announced that it is prepared to involve itself in any federal legal challenge to the charter, The Canadian Jewish News reported.