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A niqab ban makes no sense. Religious freedom is citizenship

Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Thursday, February 12, 2015 in Victoriaville, Que. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Zunera Ishaq was scheduled to become a Canadian citizen last year. She came to Canada in 2008, and in late 2013 passed the citizenship test. All that remained was for her to take the oath. It's a public ceremony, where new Canadians pledge allegiance to the Queen and their new country. Ms. Ishaq was ready, but there was one problem: She wears a niqab, a veil worn by some Muslim women. In 2011, then-Immigration Minister Jason Kenney banned anyone from taking the citizenship oath with their face covered. To become a Canadian citizen, Ms. Ishaq would have to choose between Canada and her faith.

That is not a choice anyone should be forced to make. Last week the Federal Court of Canada agreed with Ms. Ishaq, finding the federal government violated its own immigration laws in banning religious face-coverings from citizenship ceremonies.

Freedom of religion and conscience are at the core of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms because they are at the heart of what it means to be Canadian. We don't ask people to give up their religion when they come to Canada; on the contrary, Canadian law protects their religious practices, which is why Canada has long welcomed all sorts of faiths persecuted elsewhere.

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On Thursday, the government announced that it would appeal the court decision. Prime Minister Stephen Harper said, "I believe, and I think most Canadians believe, that it is offensive that someone would hide their identity at the very moment when they are committing to join the Canadian family."

We leave it to pollsters and the passage of time to determine whether Mr. Harper has made the correct political calculus. All we know is that it would be wrong, and deeply ironic, to tell potential citizens that their religious rights, including the right to wear a veil, will be constitutionally protected in this land of freedom – except, that is, during the ceremony where you join the family built on those rights. And this exception won't be made for reasons for security – faces and identities can be privately verified prior to the public ceremony – but simply because the government doesn't like niqabs.

If you find the niqab objectionable or discriminatory – and many people, including many Muslims, feel that way – then you have the absolute right to hold to that belief. You also have the right to express your belief, and to speak out against the niqab or any other religious practice. Freedom of speech is a fundamental constitutional value. But no matter how much someone else's religion bothers you, you don't get to stop them from practicing it. Not even the Prime Minister can do that. Not in Canada.

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