The Quebec government is considering a law that will ban the display of “conspicuous religious symbols” for public workers and in public spaces.
The bill, popularly referred to as the Secularism Charter, was introduced into the Quebec legislature on Nov. 7. It would prevent teachers, doctors, police officers and other public sector workers from wearing religious symbols, and would also require all those receiving state services to have their faces uncovered.
The measure was described by the minister in charge of the charter, Bernard Drainville, as one that would unite Quebecers, and be a “source of harmony and cohesion.”
The need to remove any suggestions that the government is promoting a particular religion is a motivating factor.
“If the state is neutral, those working for the state should be equally neutral in their image,” said Drainville. The desire to prevent people in public positions from proselytizing for their religion is another justification for the bill offered by some.
But there are many Quebecers, especially religious minorities, who are opposed to the measure.
One institution which has come out squarely against the Charter is Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital.
“This bill is flawed and contrary to Quebec’s spirit of inclusiveness and tolerance,” Dr. Lawrence Rosenberg, the hospital’s executive director, said in a statement earlier this month.
“If approved, this offensive legislation would make it extremely difficult for the JGH to function as an exemplary member of Quebec’s public healthcare system.”
“Contrary to statements in the bill, the JGH believes that neutrality in the delivery of healthcare services is not compromised by religious symbols in the clothing of employees,” he added.
The hospital, which is affiliated with McGill University, is located in a diverse neighborhood and has practitioners of many faiths who wear symbols associated with their religions.
The Jewish General Hospital was built in 1934. At least part of the impetus for the hospital was the prejudice Jews faced getting medical treatment and entering the medical profession in Christian institutions.
The strong statement issued by JGH was endorsed by the hospital’s board of directors. It reads, “for nearly 80 years, the JGH has prided itself on the fact that its staff — representing a wide diversity of faiths, with many employees wearing conspicuous items of clothing with religious symbols — has provided superior quality (of care) to Quebecers of all backgrounds.”
The hospital has rejected even applying for an exemption as its administration believes the proposed law is “inherently prejudicial.”
The hospital’s crest is a menorah, and its prior one was the Star of David. All official hospital goods, including uniforms, lab coats, stationery, contain one or the other symbols.
Public hearings into the proposed legislation are expected to begin in mid-January.
About the Author: Lori Lowenthal Marcus is the US correspondent for The Jewish Press. She is a recovered lawyer who previously practiced First Amendment law and taught in Philadelphia-area graduate and law schools.
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