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Religious neutrality of the State: our opinion | CDPDJ

Religious neutrality of the State

Religious neutrality of the State

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Over the past 30 years, the Commission published several studies and opinions on discrimination based on religion, management of religious diversity as well as reasonable accommodation and religion. Based on its expertise, as well as its past legal opinions founded on Québec, Canadian and international law, the Commission analyzed Bill 62 This link will redirect you to an external Website in a new window. and Bill 60 This link will redirect you to an external Website in a new window., both of which aimed to frame the religious neutrality of the state and requests for religious accommodation.

English language translations are provided when available.

  • 2019  The Commission analyses Bill 21 on state secularism (laïcité). While supporting the inclusion of secularism in a law, it expresses serious concerns about how secularism would be translated into practice. It recommends that several sections of the bill, including those dealing with the wearing of religious symbols, which may infringe human rights and freedoms and encourage negative perceptions and prejudices against religious symbols, should not be adopted.
  • 2016 The Commission comments Bill 62 This link will redirect you to an external Website in a new window., reitering that the state’s religious neutrality and the duty of reasonable accommodation are already defined and marked in the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and warning against the misinterpretation of these concepts.
  • 2014 The Commission comments Bill 60 This link will redirect you to an external Website in a new window., Charter affirming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests. The Commission considers this bill to be a clear setback for human rights and freedoms and believes it is likely to create more opportunities for conflict and disputes.
  • 2013 The Commission releases its comments on the government policy paper regarding secularism and reasonable accommodations, entitled: Parce que nos valeurs, on y croit.
  • 2011 The Commission commented on Bill 94 This link will redirect you to an external Website in a new window. establishing guidelines governing accommodation requests within the Administration in particular with respect to showing one's face during the delivery of services.
    • Communiqué sur le projet de loi 94 établissant les balises encadrant les demandes d'accommodements dans l'administration gouvernementale (PDF, 26 Ko)
    • Mémoire sur le projet de loi 94 établissant les balises encadrant les demandes d'accommodements dans l'administration gouvernementale (PDF, 188 Ko)
    • The Commission questioned the decision to resort to a law of general application within the Administration in order to stipulate that obligations flowing from the right to equality recognized by the Charter apply to it, as this has already been the case since the Charter came into force.

      The Commission was concerned with the negative socio-political impact that this bill might have on some women. While recognizing that the wearing of the full-face veil is an extremely rare phenomenon in Québec, the Commission feared that this bill would exacerbate the exclusion and stigmatization of women who wear the veil and who are already vulnerable.

      One section of the bill provided that accommodation must be denied where reasons of security, communication or identification warrant it. However, the Commission questioned the reasons behind adding the ground of security as one of the elements of undue hardship. The Commission was of the opinion that this wording stigmatized Muslim women who cover their faces, as if associating them with a potential security threat, which, in turn, could trigger racial profiling.

      Moreover, the Commission particularly wished to express its unease with a bill that indirectly targetted, in a specific provision establishing guidelines with respect to accommodation, a particular group of persons who cover their faces for religious reasons, namely Muslim women wearing the niqab. The negative socio-political impact that this bill could have on these women was a cause for concern.

  • 2010 The Commission published an opinion on the guidelines of the Régie de l'assurance maladie du Québec (RAMQ) governing reasonable accommodation. In the three cases analyzed, the Commission explained that the RAMQ had no duty to accommodate.
    • Communiqué sur les directives de la Régie de l'assurance maladie en matière d'accommodement raisonnable (PDF, 33 Ko)
    • Avis sur les directives de la Régie de l'assurance maladie en matière d'accommodement raisonnable (PDF, 124 Ko)
    • The first situation raised in this opinion involved a client’s refusal to be served by a RAMQ call-centre employee from a cultural community. The Commission came to the conclusion that the concept of reasonable accommodation did not apply in this case. It was clearly a case of the client expressing prejudice on the grounds that the employee spoke with an accent and therefore probably related to the employee's ethnic or national origin. This type of request by clientele is discriminatory and undermines the dignity of RAMQ employees.

      The second situation involved a client’s refusal to be served by a RAMQ receptionist wearing the hijab. The Commission came to the conclusion that there was no obligation to accommodate the client. The law as it stands does not prohibit public service personnel from wearing religious symbols. Public servants have the right to wear a hijab. The fact that a State employee wears a religious symbol does not, in itself, infringe a client’s basic freedom of conscience and religion because, in itself, the mere sight of a religious symbol does not constitute hardship.

      Finally, with regard to the situation of female clients who wear the full veil (niqab or burka), and who request that their identity be checked and authenticated by a female employee, the Commission was of the opinion that the RAMQ was under no obligation to accommodate this request. According to the Commission, asking these women to uncover their face for identification purposes within a neutral administrative framework, and for a short period of time, does not infringe freedom of religion in a significant way. As such, the RAMQ has no obligation to accommodate a client’s request that authentication or the taking of a photograph be done by a female employee.

  • 2009 The Commission commented on the Société de l'Assurance automobile du Québec (SAAQ)'s accommodation policy during driving tests.
    • Commentaires sur la politique d'accommodement appliquée par la Société de l'assurance automobile du Québec (SAAQ) lors de l'évaluation de la conduite (PDF, 99 Ko)
    • A request based on religious grounds not to be left alone with a driving examiner of the opposite sex during a road test may constitute a request for reasonable accommodation if the request is based on genuine and sincere religious beliefs.

      The accommodation proposed by the SAAQ, namely to postpone the applicant’s road test until a driving examiner of the appropriate sex is available, or by scheduling a new appointment under the same conditions, is reasonable and does not appear to constitute undue hardship for the SAAQ.

      The accommodation appears to respect the applicant’s right to equality and freedom from discrimination based on religion without infringing the gender- equality rights of SAAQ employees. Any other type of accommodation that would affect a driving examiner’s working conditions could be considered non-reasonable, particularly since it could infringe the examiner’s right to equality and freedom from discrimination based on gender. The SAAQ’s current policy needed to be clarified and updated; it also needed to be communicated to the SAAQ’s clientele.

  • 2008 The Commission concluded that the ethics and religious culture courses comply with the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.
    • Avis sur le cours d’éthique et de culture religieuse (PDF, 149 Ko)
    • The decision to replace the former religious and moral education courses with a single compulsory course on ethics and religious culture (ERC) was made in 2005 and took place in the context of measures taken by the government to secularize Québec’s school system,. The Commission examined the issue of whether the ERC course infringed the right to full and equal recognition (section 10) of the freedom of religion and conscience of either children or their parents (section 3), and the right of parents to provide their children with religious and moral education in keeping with their convictions (section 41).

      Based on both on Québec and external law, the Commission concluded that ERC courses, in principle, do not infringe any right guaranteed under the Charter. Accordingly, complaints filed before the Commission alleging, outside of a particular factual context, that ERC courses as an educational initiative restrict, in a discriminatory manner, any of the rights and freedoms guaranteed under the Charter, are inadmissible.

  • 2008 The Commission reviewed the legal principles regarding the expression of faith in the public sphere, and the relationship between the State and religion. It also explained the legal basis for freedom of religion and the State’s obligation of neutrality under the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.
    • Document de réflexion sur la Charte et la prise en compte de la religion dans l’espace (PDF, 990 Ko)
    • The Commission noted that, under the Charter, freedom of religion may be restricted if the protection of other rights or the collective interest require it. There is no legislative instrument or case law that automatically confers a lesser or higher legal status to freedom of religion in relation to other rights and freedoms. In both its public statements and in its investigations and legal representations, the Commission has always favoured this approach, according to which each right and category of rights guaranteed under the Charter are of equal importance.

      The Commission pointed out that freedom of religion and conscience, as well as the right to equality without discrimination based on religion, imposes an obligation of religious neutrality on the State. The latter must remain neutral toward the various religions in order to give everyone a chance to freely express their beliefs and convictions without interference or constraints. Applying this principle to concrete cases, the Commission was of the opinion that saying a prayer at the opening of municipal council meetings is discriminatory, but that the presence of a religious symbol, such as a crucifix or a cross, in a public institution does not, generally, raise any particular problem under the Charter.

      The duty to accommodate is a natural consequence of the right to equality guaranteed under both the Quebec and Canadian Charters. Under the Quebec Charter, every person has a right to full and equal recognition and exercise of his or her human rights and freedoms, without distinction, exclusion or preference based on one of the 13 grounds listed in section 10, including religion. The Commission argued that this obligation also contributes to the integration of minorities by facilitating their inclusion in society. It noted the guidelines established for accommodation requests and the conditions for undue hardship.

  • The Commission has published other documents concerning religion. They can be accessed through the Publications section of our website.

  • Mouvement laïque québécois c. Saguenay (Ville) (2015) Cet hyperlien vous mène vers un site externe dans une nouvelle fenêtre.
    La Cour du suprême du Canada ordonne à la Ville de Saguenay et à son maire Jean Tremblay de cesser la récitation de la prière dans les salles de délibérations du conseil municipal et à verser au plaignant des dommages-intérêts compensatoires et punitifs de 30 000 $ parce qu’ils contreviennent à l’obligation de neutralité qui incombe à l’État. La récitation de la prière dans ce contexte compromet le droit à l’exercice, en pleine égalité, de la liberté de conscience et de religion.

  • Syndicat North Crest c. Amselem (2004) This link will redirect you to an external Website in a new window.
    The co-owners’ association had to allow Jewish owners to install a succah (temporary shelters covered by vegetation) on their balcony during a Jewish holiday. Protection is required because of the religious or spiritual nature of an action—not because its observance is mandatory or perceived as such. The State is in no position to be the arbiter of religious requirements. In addition, a court is qualified to inquire into the sincerity of a claimant’s belief, where sincerity is in fact at issue.

  • S.L. c. Commission scolaire des Chênes (2012) This link will redirect you to an external Website in a new window.
    The Supreme Court concluded that the course Ethics and religious culture established by the Québec Ministry of Education does not violate the freedom of religion of Catholic children and their parents.

  • CDPDJ c. Ville de Laval (2006) This link will redirect you to an external Website in a new window.
    The Human Rights Tribunal concluded that saying a prayer at public municipal council meetings violates the State’s obligation to be religiously neutral, and has a discriminatory prejudicial effect by forcing people to take part in a religious practice in which they do not believe.

  • CDP (Darquise Bédard) c. Les Autobus Legault inc. (1994) This link will redirect you to an external Website in a new window. (in French only)
    A bus company had to pay $2,000 to an employee, a member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, for firing her on the grounds that she could not work Fridays after sunset because of her religion. The company had not considered any accommodation in order to give the complainant full and equal access to work.


Did you know?

Since 2008, complaints based on religion makes up 2% or 4% of all complaints filed for human rights at the Commission.


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