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Quebec ban on face coverings a blatant violation of religious freedom

David Butt is a Toronto-based criminal lawyer.

With Halloween imminent, people turn their thoughts to the good-natured duplicity of costumes. But there is a much darker duplicity afoot as well. Under the mask of pursuing "social cohesion" the Quebec legislature has passed a bill denying women the right to receive public services while wearing a veil for religious reasons. The law is a blatant violation of religious freedom guaranteed by the Charter of Rights, an exercise in oppression of a socially vulnerable minority and gender discrimination to boot. Quite a litany of legal lapses in one bill.

Our Charter protects religious freedom regardless of whether our beliefs are shared by a majority, a minority or nobody. It matters not if others think our sincere religious beliefs benign, wacky or offensive. The freedom to believe as we choose is protected nonetheless. To understand what is so wrong with this new law one must first accept, difficult as it may be, that people who hold religious beliefs we dislike intensely are just as free to hold them as we are to hold our own. Embracing diversity can be hard and challenging work.

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Some religious practices can be limited by government. But the government must tread lightly. The limits must be reasonable and carefully tailored to pursue legitimate social objectives. For example, a religious belief that prohibits being photographed cannot exempt the believer from a driver's licence photo: Driving is necessarily heavily regulated, so anyone wishing to drive must have a proper licence.

The Quebec government ban on veil-wearers receiving government services pursues no legitimate social objective and is not carefully tailored to anything. How does a Muslim woman quietly riding a public bus create any harm, or risk of harm, to the broader public good? She doesn't. Nor is there any harm flowing from a Muslim woman using a library, visiting a hospital ER or getting a building permit from City Hall. So there is no valid objective pursued by denying these services to Muslim women who wear a veil.

Wherever photo ID is required, briefly lifting a veil to confirm identity is indeed a legitimate ask by those providing government services. But this new law goes far beyond such reasonable limits on religious freedom. The veiled woman might properly be required to lift her veil to use a photo-ID bus pass. But she should not have to keep the veil off for the entire bus ride. So the law is not carefully tailored either. It is a vastly over-reaching intrusion on freedom of religion.

If the Charter of Rights so obviously dooms this law to oblivion, why would the Quebec Legislature pass it in the first place? In fact, democracies function rather well on a certain degree of tension between legislatures and courts, which protect fundamental freedoms. Legislatures fulfill basic democratic norms by enacting laws conforming to majority views. The Quebec Legislature has done so here, where public support for the law hovers around 87 per cent. And it is for courts to do the politically unpalatable, but necessary, work of striking down bad laws that violate the minority rights of those lacking sufficient numbers for political clout. Such tension can be healthy in a vibrant democracy committed to both democratic rule and minority rights.

But the Quebec government doesn't get off so lightly here. If we look at why people are so strongly and viscerally opposed to women wearing veils, we will see that the Quebec government is catering slavishly to the meanest urges of the voting mob, stooping to the lowest depths of democracy.

Behind much visceral opposition to veils is unwarranted fear of the unfamiliar. Veils make women perpetually unfamiliar in a shallow visual sense, and this allows the unreflective among us to wrongly build the irrational bridge from unfamiliarity to loathing. Sadly, that is what the Quebec government has encouraged. Anyone making the effort to know veil wearers will of course discover a rich humanity that whether agreeable or disagreeable, reduces wardrobe choices to near irrelevance and invisibility.

Also behind much opposition to veils is the infuriatingly persistent social tendency to tell women what their choices mean, and then impose that meaning on them. The Quebec government is paternalistically telling women that even their most thoughtful, sincere and highly individual religious choice to wear veils categorically denotes nothing more than mean-spirited rejection of the community that sustains them. And the government is then punishing these women for sending the message the government has told them they are sending. This is oppression, pure and simple.

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At Halloween, the Quebec legislature has rejected treats in favour of a mean-spirited, insidious trick. Let us hope the courts will not be fooled by the legislature's poorly crafted disguise.

Hussen condemns RCMP questionnaire that singled out Muslim asylum seekers (The Canadian Press)
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