The Canadian province of Quebec passed a law Sunday prohibiting future government employees “in positions of authority” from expressing their beliefs through religious symbols during office hours.
The law passed June 16, previously known as Bill 21, does not mention any religion in particular, and would include, for example, hijabs for Muslim women and crosses for Christians. It covers judges, police officers, teachers, and other public figures, the BBC reports.
“We believe that Bill 21, as it stands now, will fuel fear and intolerance, rather than contributing to social peace. We therefore call on members of the government and all Quebecers to promote important amendments to this project, in order to seek more to welcome than to exclude, to understand that to reject,” Quebec’s Catholic bishops wrote in a statement issued in French June 14.
Existing employees are exempt from the new legislation. Some critics of the law claimed it particularly targets Muslim women, but Jewish organizations have also spoken out against it.
Quebec has previously sought to assert the secularity of the state and ban religious symbols. The province issued a ban in 2017 on religious full-face coverings, but it is was suspended by a judge last June.
The bishops of Quebec expressed concern about the law, especially as it relates to teachers.
“The measures affecting teachers reveal a lack of knowledge about religious life in society, as well as its cultural connotation. This lack of knowledge seems to us fueled by prejudices and fear. Rather than defuse them, these measures exacerbate them.”
“On a daily basis, [religious] people build a better society through their benevolent acceptance of others, their active solidarity with excluded and poor people, their hope for the future and their concern for peace,” the bishops noted.
The bishops pointed out that the clothing and symbols of certain religious traditions are often misunderstood as being a “tool of propaganda,” and that the new law will only encourage “unjustified mistrust.” They also expressed worry that representatives of a secular state will now be the ones to determine what is and isn’t a “religious sign.”
“Certain traditions incite or force the faithful to put on particular clothes or symbols, generally as a sign of humility. This phenomenon seems to be misunderstood, especially when we automatically consider any religious sign worn by a person as a tool of propaganda whose function is to convert those who see it,” the bishops wrote.
“Mistrust inspired by certain dress practices related to a particular religious identity may be exacerbated by the discretion of some other religious groups to use explicit signs. For example, Christianity, which remains the declared religious affiliation of the vast majority of the population in Quebec, does not require its faithful to wear specific clothing or symbols.”
The Archdiocese of Montreal had issued a statement in April saying that the crucifix represents the Christian roots of the country and does not need to be removed in a religiously pluralistic society.
“As a sign revered by Christians, the crucifix remains a living symbol. It symbolizes openness and respect toward all peoples, including toward other faith communities and religious traditions, which rightfully adhere to their own signs and symbols,” said Archbishop Christian Lépine.
Europe, too, has also seen debate over religious symbols in recent years. In 2017, the Court of Justice of the European Union upheld a ban on religious symbols in the work place. The court ruled that it is not directly discriminatory for a workplace to ban “any political, philosophical or religious sign” if the ban is based on internal company rules requiring neutral dress.
A ban on teachers wearing religious headscarves was ruled unconstitutional in a German court in 2015. In Austria and the German state of Bavaria, full-face veils are banned in public. France banned religious symbols and veils in schools in 2004.
In 2013, four Christian British Airways employees won a legal case in the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled their employer engaged in illegal discrimination for telling them they could not wear their crosses.