The Quebec government is preparing to table a bill based on a “Charter of Quebec Values” and is proposing, among other measures, to prohibit government employees from wearing conspicuous religious symbols.
Amnesty International salutes the Quebec government for its plans to strengthen the fulfillment of its obligation to respect the right of women to be free from discrimination and the right to equality for all. But Amnesty International questions the means by which the Quebec government is attempting to strengthen these rights. Prohibiting all government employees from wearing conspicuous religious symbols not only limits the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and freedom of religion, but also fails to promote equality between the sexes.
International human rights law guarantees the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of religion and the freedom to manifest one’s religion. These freedoms extend to the way in which people choose to dress. Canada is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Quebec is therefore subject to it. These fundamental rights are also enshrined in numerous other international treaties. Both the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms also guarantee these fundamental rights, as well as equality between the sexes.
Governments therefore do not have the power to impose a blanket obligation on people to dress or not to dress in a certain way. Governments must protect people against constraints imposed in this regard by third parties, and in particular by people’s families or their communities in a broader sense.
Speaking on this issue, Béatrice Vaugrante, Executive Director of Amnesty International Canada’s Francophone Branch, stated, “Women must not be forced to wear a scarf or a veil, neither by the government nor by individuals. But it is no more acceptable for a law to prevent them from wearing such garb. This principle applies to everyone. Some specific, clearly defined restrictions may be allowed for exceptional reasons—for example, a requirement for women to uncover their faces when their identity has to be checked—but the restrictions under the proposed Quebec charter are disproportionate.
International law allows some legitimate restrictions on the wearing of religious symbols, but such restrictions must satisfy three strict conditions, in addition to causing the least possible inconvenience for the persons concerned:
- The restrictions must be prescribed by law;
- The restrictions must serve a specific, legitimate purpose authorized by international law, such as public order, health, or morals, public safety, or protecting other people’s rights;
- It must be demonstrated that these restrictions are necessary and proportionate to the achievement of their stated purpose.
For people, and particularly for women, who might be coerced into wearing a religious symbol, prohibiting them from wearing it will not solve the problem. The people who had coerced them will still go unpunished, while the people who have been coerced will be punished in a number of ways, such as losing their jobs and hence their right to work and risking becoming isolated and stigmatized in their communities. As Ms. Vaugrante puts it, “Do we really want to replace a supposed obligation to wear a religious symbol with an obligation by the government not to wear one?”
Some governments in other countries have attempted to restrict the fundamental rights at risk here– for example, Belgium, France, and Spain prohibit the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols, while Iran and Saudi Arabia make it mandatory—and Amnesty International has reminded these governments of their duty to respect international human rights law.
In conclusion, said Ms. Vaugrante, “We do encourage the Quebec government’s desire to defend equality between men and women and to improve people’s ability to live together harmoniously. But we strongly call on the Quebec government to withdraw this proposal to prohibit the wearing of any conspicuous religious symbols by government employees.”
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