Editorial: Face-covering law lacks common sense

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Now that Quebec’s Bill 62 has become law, the best that can be hoped is for it to disappear into the black hole of its own contradictions and ambiguities.

The law’s stated purpose is to foster state religious neutrality and to provide a framework for addressing requests for accommodations on religious grounds. Practically, it does neither. Religious neutrality is eroded, not served, by making a rule that will have a discriminatory impact on the tiny proportion of Muslim women who feel it necessary to cover their faces in public.

And the language on accommodations — for example, absences from school or work for religious reasons — has so many subjective elements that it is not likely to be either helpful or set any uniform standard.

The government has framed the law in a way designed to avoid having it struck down as unconstitutional. The ban on the receipt or delivery of public services by those wearing face coverings would theoretically apply to anyone wearing a mask. But those who wear face coverings for religious reasons are entitled to seek an accommodation; these are to be decided case by case.

The courts may decide this obligation to seek an accommodation is a Charter violation, but we won’t know for several years.

Meanwhile, municipalities, among others, oppose the law, which suggests that at least some of those charged with implementing it will not be in any rush to do so.

Even if the law’s application might be negated or moderated by its own provisions, its broader impact may well be more harmful. How many people will mistakenly think the new law bans niqabs entirely? Or even hijabs, which do not cover the face? Clearly, this law isn’t really about civil servants’ Halloween masks. There is a danger that some might find social licence for their own prejudices.

The law’s purpose, really, seems to be to inoculate the Quebec Liberals against accusations from their adversaries that they were lax on secularism.

Will the new law also inoculate against further pursuit of the kinds of discriminatory restrictions on religious garb that the Parti Québécois government had proposed in its Charter of Values?

While one can hope it does, that looks unlikely, given the PQ’s promise to propose new restrictions shortly.

At the National Assembly, the “gros bon sens” (common sense) that Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée called for this week, as reporters quizzed her on the minutiae of the law’s application, seems to be in short supply.



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