The "Charter of Values" (Bill 60) is being presented to the public by the present Quebec Government as a “social project “, essentially like that of the Charter of the French Language (Bill 101) . Therefore we must consider it in this light. In the case of the predominance of the French language in Quebec, we can see that, in the past decades, there has developed in Quebec a large consensus; though even today there is still debate on some details (e.g. whether eligibility for education in English schools in Quebec should be more inclusive or more restricted).
Now the question we must ask is this: Has the “Charter of Values” achieved a similar broad consensus in our society? The answer to this question is decidedly negative. The opposition to Bill 60 among Quebecers certainly includes the minority religious and cultural communities directly involved. But, according to all public opinion surveys, opposition to this proposed legislation is much greater than the percentage of "cultural communities" in Quebec society.
Why is this so? I would say that the reasons the provisions of the bill are not being accepted by a large consensus in Quebec is because there is an appearance of a lack of equality in the project. In order to establish a system of religious "neutrality", the Quebec government is prepared to play around with another fundamental principle of Quebec, Canadian, and, indeed, all advanced western societies : freedom of conscience and religious practice. It is in this light that the legislation envisages amending the Quebec Charter of Human Rights.
In Quebec society, as it has evolved in recent decades, it is deemed possible to deny the rights of the individual in the interests of the perceived needs of society at large, e.g. Bill 101 on the protection of the French language. But the law for the protection of the French language was established on the basis of a clear societal consensus and for a clear reason, and even those who oppose the details of this law agree that the law in principle is attempting to prevent the “disappearance” of a majority francophone society in North America, a situation that just might take place without special protection for the French language.
Now we need to ask another question: is the "danger" that is deemed by the authors of Bill 60 to threaten our society because of those who wear conspicuous religious symbols similar to the other existential danger– a francophone society disappeared—for which individual rights have been sacrificed? Even those who support Bill 60 recognize that in the current Quebec government and public service, those who wear overt religious signs are almost nonexistent. Thus, in order to establish the principle of the "neutrality" of the state, the people who have proposed this legislation are ready to amend the Quebec human rights charter. They thus are attempting to protect Quebec society from a danger that exists now almost wholly in theory.
If, indeed, a problem with the public service of Quebec does not exist currently, why are the proponents of this legislation so willing to deny the rights of the individual to freedom of religious expression? It is largely because they are afraid of the negative societal influence of religion in general. Primarily, this is expressed as a fear of religious communities relatively recently arrived in Quebec (especially Muslims). However we can discern in the debates and in the reportage on the bill a much more generalized fear of religion and its influence on our society. There is a great desire to emancipate Quebec from any and all religious influence. This desire harks back to a collective memory of “la grande noirceur”, the "great darkness", an almost mythical epoch today, in which the Catholic Church in Quebec controlled a vast network of educational establishments, health institutions, and social services. Even Christians, who do not generally wear conspicuous religious clothing, are now accused in the media of a negative influence on Quebec society, especially with respect to equality between women and men. For those who support this bill, the possibility of a return of the influence of religion is such a nightmare that on the basis of a theoretical possibility alone, they are ready to amend the right to full freedom of religious practice in Quebec.
According to the bill, public institutions, semi-public institutions such as universities, companies seeking government contracts, and even day care establishments would need to “prove" their religious neutrality. However, it is clear and evident that the real obligation of such "proof" falls on individuals. Individuals in our society who do not wear conspicuous religious symbols have no need to “prove” their bona fides. It is just assumed they support the values of the secular state and of equality between men and women even if they are really opposed. However for individuals who wear overt religious signs, it is to be assumed that they are opposed to these principles, even if they actually support them. Thus, according to the bill, a bearer of a “conspicuous religious sign" would have no means of protesting his or her bona fides other than to stop wearing the kippah, turban or veil.
Martin Luther King said in his great "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington 50 years ago, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Now in Quebec, the authors of Bill 60 are saying to us, in effect, "We have a dream that one day, in Quebec, a person will not be judged by the content of his character, but rather by the appearance of his or her conspicuous religious clothing.”
(Prof. Ira Robinson, Religion, Concordia University, is a CIJR Academic Fellow)