By Michael Regenstreif, Editor
During Passover we celebrate freedom. Specifically, we celebrate the release from the slavery endured by the Jewish people in ancient Egypt. The story is told in the Torah, in the book of Exodus.
Although our freedom from slavery came in biblical times, the Haggadah tells us that every generation must see themselves as moving from slavery to freedom.
Thousands of years later, we have a broader understanding of what freedom means and many view Passover as an opportunity to celebrate freedom in all of its forms and to pledge to strive toward a world where all are free.
Freedom of religion – which does not yet exist in many places around the world – is something we have come to take for granted in liberal democracies. Here in Canada, for example, freedom of religion is enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Freedom of religion is also enshrined in the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. And yet, late last month, the government of Quebec introduced Bill 21, “An Act Respecting the Laicity (secularism) of the State.” The law, if passed, will restrict freedom for persons of authority in the public sector who wear certain items – including kippot, hijabs, turbans, Stars of David, crucifixes, etc. – as expressions of their religious beliefs.
Knowing the law flies in the face of guarantees under both the Canadian and Quebec charters, the Quebec government will invoke the “notwithstanding clause” to override the charters. I’ve always felt that including the notwithstanding clause in the Canadian charter was a huge mistake. The purpose of a charter of rights should be to protect fundamental rights from the whims of ephemeral politicians or the “base” they might cater to. The notwithstanding clause means that rights are only as protected as a government of the day thinks they should be.
One would have thought the issue of public sector workers having the right to wear such religious symbols in Canada was settled decades ago. In 1990, RCMP officers who practice the Sikh religion won the right to wear turbans – as their religion mandates them to do – while on duty. It was a precedent that has been respected in the public service in Canada for nearly 30 years.
Bill 21 is a solution to a problem that should never have been seen as a problem. A problem that rose to the surface in Quebec in 2007 when Hérouxville, a small village northeast of Shawinigan, passed a “code of conduct” for immigrants. The village, entirely white and francophone, had no immigrants – but its code sparked a long debate in Quebec about so-called “reasonable accommodation” that ultimately resulted in the introduction of the current bill.
The bill is in the initial stages of working its way through committee and second and third readings before it can be passed, and opposition to it is strong.
In a statement, Rabbi Reuben Poupko, Quebec co-chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said the Jewish community is “firmly opposed to any restriction of the freedom of religion of individuals in the name of secularism.
“Our community believes that the secularism of the state is an institutional duty and not a personal one. The commitment to secularism does not rest on the outward appearance of individuals. Any legislation that aims to restrict individual freedoms must pass the test of its constitutionality and in this regard, we are troubled by the inclusion of the notwithstanding clause to shield this legislation from a legal challenge.
“We are closely studying this Bill and are committed to participating constructively in the special consultations in order to voice our community’s concerns and opposition.”