As Canadians rev up for elections in October, candidates are being asked to weigh in on a law passed in the province of Quebec that critics say will test whether Canada remains a truly free country.
In June, Quebec, the mostly French-speaking province of Canada, passed a law banning the wearing of religious symbols for public sector employees. It's called Bill 21, and according to the BBC, it bars civil servants in positions of "authority" from wearing religious symbols at work. That includes judges, police officers, teachers, and others from wearing religious clothing such as the kippah, turban, or hijab. It also prohibits public workers from wearing symbols like crosses, crucifixes, Stars of David, and other representations of religious belief. The law applies only to new hires or those who change jobs within an organization.
For proponents of Bill 21, it's all about secularization and making sure religious practice is kept separate from the work of the state. Some warn these religious expressions are a type of proselytizing.
Opponents charge the law flat-out legalizes discrimination, which some believe means targeting those who are most visible like Muslims. But others say it adversely affects all believers who reject a secularization that takes away individual rights of religion and conscience.
Amrit Kaur hopes to be a teacher like her parents. But she's unsure with Bill 21 whether there even will be a teaching position for her in Quebec once she finishes her degree.
As a Sikh, she told the BBC wearing her turban is "just such an integral part of my ethos and my being that I can't disassociate from it."
She adds her faith "is not something I can leave at the door. That's virtually impossible."
Freedom of expression and of religion is a basic human right, she insists. "And that's being looked down on."
David Rand said he is a staunch secularist and atheist, and thinks Bill 21 is "a perfectly reasonable restriction" similar to those that forbid public servants from showing partisan political preference while at work. He believes a certain kind of reserve is necessary when working for the state. "I would not wear a T-shirt that says 'God does not exist' if I went to work in the public service and I expect the same savoir vivre of a woman who wears a hijab or a man who wears a kippah, that they would remove it if they go to work in the public service."
All of the federal candidates from the main parties standing for election oppose the new legislation. But they, like Prime Minister Trudeau, are stepping lightly so as not to interfere too much due to the historical touchiness of the one French-speaking province in the country to interference from Ottawa. CBC News reports Quebec Premier François Legault has pretty much said federal leaders need to keep out of the matter "forever," suggesting criticisms challenge Quebec's sovereignty within Canada.
The new law is being challenged in the courts. Trudeau told the CBC intervention would be counter productive right now, and that he plans to stay out of the fray while that legal challenge is going on.
"I think Quebec voters know full well that I will always defend individual rights and freedoms and indeed that I disagree with Bill 21. I don't think, in a free society, we should be limiting fundamental rights or allowing discrimination to happen," he said.
Critics warn this new law has consequences beyond wrongly keeping many people from working in public sector jobs. It's a giant step down the proverbial slippery slope toward greater authoritarianism, and the first target is always religious believers who disagree.
Reacting to the Quebec law, Avi Shick, a former deputy attorney general for New York and a religious Jew, wrote in the Wall Street Journal about what this religious symbols ban really implies: "In reality, the law suggests that religious practice is incompatible with public service, that people of faith cannot be trusted to balance their religious beliefs and civic responsibilities, and that employees must choose between their consciences and careers."
Wesley J. Smith, writing in National Review, says Quebec's stifling of religious expression is becoming the rule throughout Canada, rather than the exception.
He cites an Ontario Court of Appeals decision earlier this year that forces a doctor to violate his or her conscience, and says "that all doctors must abort, euthanize, provide transgender interventions, or any other legal medical procedure – or find a doctor who will, which is called an "effective referral." In other words, Ontario forces doctors to take human life or provide services he or she might consider mutilating, even if the doctor considers it an egregious sin – either that, or be ghettoized into areas of practice such as podiatry in which no such requests are likely to be made. And if they don't like that, as one judge put it, they can get out of medicine altogether. Do you see the pattern?"
Religious liberty and freedom of conscience be damned.
That, Smith writes, was the message sent and received when a private Christian university in British Columbia sought to open a law school in which "students would be expected to conduct themselves consistently with the faith's moral precepts. Because of this, it was denied accreditation."
In the ruling, the court was concerned that the Christian university's mandatory faith-based community standards "could harm the dignity of members of the LGBT community who attended."
As this new law works its way through Canada's courts, back in Quebec officials have to figure out how to enforce this new law, and decide just how oppressive they will be in making public workers at least look alike, even if they still can not make them all think alike.