Quebec secularism law could hurt social cohesion, expert tells court challenge

Morgan Lowrie
·3 min read

MONTREAL — A psychology expert told the court challenge to Quebec's secularism law that Bill 21 may lead to people who are Jewish, Sikh and Muslim feeling increasingly stigmatized and could ultimately hurt social cohesion.

Richard Bourhis told a Montreal courtroom on Friday that studies have shown efforts to sort people into different categories create an "us and them" phenomenon that can reinforce feelings of prejudice between groups.

Bourhis testified on Day 5 of the legal proceedings against Bill 21, the law that bans public sector workers in positions of authority -- including teachers and judges -- from wearing religious symbols on the job.

He said the law could embolden some people who already have negative perceptions of their counterparts who wear religious symbols, while making people who wear them feel excluded.

Feeling discriminated against "can lead people to doubt themselves, to feel sad, stressed, and in poorer mental health," Bourhis told the court by video link. "They feel rejected by the majority."

The Universite du Quebec a Montreal professor emeritus said the effect of this categorization is greater when it comes to groups that already experience discrimination, particularly Muslim women who wear the hijab.

Bourhis said that while there hasn't been enough time to study the effects of the law introduced in 2019, data from other studies leads him to believe it could have longer-term effects.

He said minority groups who feel targeted tend to stick together, which can have the effect of isolating them from the rest of society. "Long term, it can hurt the integration of those minorities," he said.

Bourhis described the law as an example of "indirect discrimination," because it affects some communities more than others, even if it doesn't explicitly target a single group.

"The law applies to everyone, but it applies to minorities in a more intense way, because they have to choose between their religious signs and their professions," he said. Young people who wear religious symbols may also feel limited in their career choices or that they don't belong, he said.

The hearings in Montreal combine four separate lawsuits challenging Bill 21 into one trial, which is expected to last up to six weeks before Superior Court Justice Marc-Andre Blanchard.

The trial opened this week with testimony from Muslim and Sikh teachers, who described feeling excluded from Quebec society because they choose to wear religious symbols.

Bill 21 makes pre-emptive use of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms notwithstanding clause, which shields legislation from court challenges over violations of fundamental rights.

In a bid to get around the notwithstanding clause, the plaintiffs are invoking the sexual equality guarantees in Section 28 of the charter, which they maintain are not covered by the notwithstanding clause.

The Quebec government has said it is prepared to defend its secularism law before all courts. Premier Francois Legault has previously described the law as moderate and said it is supported by most of the province's citizens.

On Friday a second witness, who specializes in theology, said it can be difficult for societies with a Catholic and Christian tradition to understand the importance of religious symbols for those of different faiths.

Solange Lefebvre, a professor at the Universite de Montreal, said some religions including Islam, Judaism and Hinduism place a higher emphasis on actions, such as rituals and symbols, compared to Christianity, which is more focused on belief alone.

Lefebvre also strongly rejected the notion that wearing a hijab is automatically a symbol of patriarchy and women’s oppression.

While she said that can undoubtedly be the case, especially in some authoritarian societies, “it’s impossible with the data we have now on the multiple meanings that women in multiple societies accord to it, to say it has only that meaning,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov 6, 2020

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press