Christmas is a special time for me and my family, as I’m sure it is for many of you. My family’s traditions include our church’s Christmas Eve service. Our faith is important to us, and the opportunities that we have to worship help us to remember the true meaning of the season.
All of us can take for granted the religious freedom we have as Americans. Sure, it can seem like plenty of forces line up against people of faith in these times, but it should never be lost on any of us that we have the freedom to worship as we choose as part of the U.S. Constitution. Religious liberty has been a part of our nation’s identity from the start, and that’s something we should be grateful for.
When you look at what’s going on with our neighbors to the north, you should be even more thankful for your religious freedom. In Canada, religious liberty is supposed to be guaranteed in the country’s constitution, along with “and the right to equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination based on religion.” That enshrinement hasn’t stopped the province of Quebec from trampling on the rights of millions of people of faith.
Quebec passed a law in 2019 colloquially known as Bill 21 — its full title is An Act respecting the laicity of the State — designed to preserve the secularism of provincial government. Under Bill 21, people of faith aren’t allowed to wear symbols of their faith at work. This law covers crosses, kippahs, hijabs, turbans, and other symbols of the faiths that religious people throughout Quebec hold dear, and the legislation extends to schools as well.
That’s a big deal because government work is apparently a big deal in Quebec. Employees in the public sector make close to 10% more than private-sector workers — which ought to be a problem in and of itself, religious liberty notwithstanding. In a way, the law also prevents people of faith from applying for jobs, particularly if their religion requires them to wear specific articles of clothing (think Sikhs, Muslims, and Jews).
Even though Bill 21 has been on the books for nearly two-and-a-half years, it has come back into the spotlight after a school district removed teacher Fatemah Anvari for wearing a hijab. She could’ve been a Christian teacher fired for a cross necklace or a Sikh teacher fired for wearing a turban, or a Jewish teacher fired for a Star of David pendant or a kippah — the faith of the teacher doesn’t matter as much as the fact that her rights were violated by the law.
Now Bill 21 is having its day in court. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has taken up a case against the law in Canadian courts, noting that the law “not only affects people currently working in the public sector, but also the youth who aspire to those careers.”
“People should not be forced to make the choice between their religion, their identity and their profession,” the CCLA says. “The government should not be allowed to impose their beliefs on the people of Quebec, nor should they be dictating to individuals what they can and cannot wear.”
The Globe and Mail reports that leaders in Canadian cities outside Quebec have joined in the chorus decrying the law. In Brampton, Ontario, “Mayor Patrick Brown also urged the mayors of Canada’s 100 largest cities to ‘join the fight’ against legislation that bars certain public-sector workers from wearing religious symbols on the job.”
Calgary’s city council passed a motion to support the legal challenge to Bill 21 as well.
A spokesman for Toronto’s mayor said that even though no one should view opposition to the law as hostility against the people of Quebec, “Mayor [John] Tory does believe however that Bill 21 and the discussion and litigation surrounding it are very much a legitimate area for engagement by other elected officials in Canada principally due to the fact that the Charter is a national document and the rights guaranteed in it are guaranteed to all Canadians.”
Quebec’s Premier François Legault says that it’s not the business of people outside of the province how laws affect citizens of Quebec.
“I want them to stay out of it — forever. Not for the moment, but forever,” he said.
But a Globe and Mail editorial noted that opposition to the law outside of Quebec is the right position to take.
When others are facing discrimination, we all have a right, even an obligation, to say something. And the discrimination in this case is clear. A young woman, Fatemeh Anvari, was removed from her job teaching Grade 3 in Chelsea, Quebec, solely because she wears a hijab.
That such a thing could have happened in 21st-century Canada almost defies belief. It certainly defies logic. There is no evidence at all that a teacher in a hijab or a cop in a turban somehow threatens the secular status of the public service, the gains of the Quiet Revolution or the Quebec way of life. Ms. Anvari came to school to teach, not advertise, much less impose, her religion.
Gee goes on to note that these mayors and city councils are standing up for religious rights much more forcefully than federal officials of all parties have.
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All of this comes as COVID threatens the right to worship in Canada as well. The Catholic Church in Quebec made the recent decision to “suspend the collective celebrations in the Catholic places of worship of the Archdiocese of Quebec as of December 23, 2021, at midnight, until January 10, 2022, including the celebrations planned outside. Personal visits to churches will remain possible if required public health checks are implemented.”
Doesn’t it seem like worship is always the first thing to be shut down in a pandemic?
As this holiday season comes to a close — and I’m not being politically correct; I’m referring that whole span of time from Thanksgiving to Hanukkah to Christmas to New Year’s Day — and we get ready to usher in a new year, take some time to breathe a prayer of thanks for the religious freedom that we enjoy as Americans.
We should certainly never take it for granted.
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