What you need to know about Quebec's religious neutrality legislation

What you need to know about Quebec's religious neutrality law, set to pass today

A bill that requires people in Quebec who give or receive any public service to uncover their faces could become law as soon as Wednesday.

The Liberal government's religious neutrality bill was debated for hours Tuesday at the National Assembly. The vote was expected in the evening but has instead been put off until tomorrow.

If passed, people who offer or receive public services would be banned from wearing face coverings such as the niqab.

Many important details still need to be crafted, and its implications may be decided by the courts.

Here's a closer look at Bill 62 and what comes next.

What is in the bill?

It does not specifically mention the niqab or burka, two styles of traditional garments that cover the face, worn by some Muslim women.

Initially, the bill was only to apply to provincial public-sector services and provincially funded institutions, including universities and schools.

In August, Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée proposed amendments that make the legislation apply to municipalities, metropolitan communities and public transit organizations.

That means, according to the justice minister, anyone who rides a bus or the Metro must be unveiled.

On Monday, Vallée told CBC Montreal's Daybreak that a woman who normally wears a burka or niqab would have to show her face for the duration of her ride — "as long as the service is being rendered."

Beyond the face-covering ban, the bill sets out broad limits for all requests for religious accommodation.

It says a request has to be "serious," respect the right to equality between men and women and "the right of every person to be treated without discrimination."

The bill also details under what circumstances employers and schools should refuse requests for time off for religious reasons.

Under the rules for religious accommodation requests, a woman who wears a niqab or burka when receiving public services could apply for an exemption, leading many critics to question how far-reaching the ban will actually be.  

"This is the whole problem with the law. No one knows how it will be applied," said the Parti Québécois's critic for issues related to secularism, Agnes Maltais.

The bill would also bar subsidized daycares from teaching children specific religious beliefs.

Where does it apply?

All Quebec ministries will be subject to the law, as will all school boards, universities, public health-care institutions, subsidized daycare centres, municipalities, public transit authorities, and the Montreal region's train agency, the RMT.

It will also apply to doctors, dentists and midwives.

However, people who provide spiritual guidance will be exempt from the duty of religious neutrality imposed in the legislation.

What will happen after it passes?

When the bill becomes law, the ban on wearing face-coverings while receiving services will go into effect immediately.

However, the legislation does not say what service providers should do when someone with a covered face asks to be served.

An administrative committee will be struck to consider various scenarios and produce advice, said the justice minister's media attaché, Isabelle Marier St-Onge.

The working group will be composed of representatives from the various sectors concerned, including health and education, and from municipalities.

"The committee will think about the types of situations that would lead a person to have their face covered versus not covered," she said.

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Another part of the bill — the section that imposes a framework for how requests for religious accommodation should be treated — will only come into effect later. The government will issue a decree by next July, after it has produced more detailed guidelines.

The fact that the guidelines will not be ready when the bill becomes law is a concern raised by Quebec's Ligue des droits et libertés.

"Public servants that are in the position of authority will have to respect the law without guidelines, and then eventually make decisions based on those future guidelines," said Lucie Lamarche, a human rights lawyer and an executive member of the league.

"It's highly unusual."

Why is Quebec introducing this legislation?

During the last provincial election, Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard challenged the PQ's Pauline Marois's contentious proposal for a so-called charter of values, which was to ban public servants from wearing obvious religious symbols.

He promised instead to replace it with a ban that would only apply to the full face veil.

What's next?

Several legal observers said they expect people who cover their faces for religious reasons to mount a constitutional challenge of the legislation once it has passed.

Any other types of religious accommodation requests rejected under the law's new guidelines could also become the subject of a court battle.

Julie Latour, former head of the Montreal Bar, says the challenges could be lengthy and numerous.

For example, a challenge against prayers being conducted prior to city council meetings in Saguenay, Que., took seven years to wend its way through the courts.

"You can take this illustration of seven years. It will take 600 years to really carve the modalities," she said.