Quebec passes law obliging citizens to uncover their faces

QUEBEC — The Quebec national assembly has passed a controversial religious neutrality bill that obliges citizens to uncover their faces while giving and receiving state services.

Members of the national assembly voted 66-51 in favour of Bill 62  yesterday.

Tabled by Justice Minister Stephanie Vallee in 2015, it is the governing Liberals’ response to the Bouchard-Taylor report on religious accommodation from more than a decade ago.

It follows up on an election promise in 2014 to address the issue after the Parti Quebecois’ own controversial secularism charter — the so-called charter of values — died after the party was swept out of power that year.

While the Liberal bill doesn’t specifically mention the garb, it would prohibit the burka and niqab while people interact with the state, but it doesn’t extend to other religious symbols as the PQ’s charter did.

The law will also provide for the possibility of religious accommodation if certain criteria are met.

Premier Philippe Couillard said he expects some people to challenge the law, but he defended the legislation as necessary for reasons related to communication, identification and security.

“The principle to which I think a vast majority of Canadians by the way, not only Quebecers, would agree upon is that public services should be given and received with an open face,” he said.

“I speak to you, you speak to me. I see your face. You see mine. As simple as that.”

Vallee said guidelines on how to apply the law — notably criteria touching on reasonable accommodation — would be phased in by next June 30 after consultations.

Provisions regarding daycare will kick in by next summer to allow educators to get training, but the majority of the face-covering provisions will take effect once the lieutenant-governor rubber-stamps the law.

That means people who sit an exam will have to do so with their faces uncovered. Asked specifically about someone getting on a bus, Vallee replied that all services offered must be done so with the face uncovered.

The main opposition parties, who voted against the bill, have said the Liberals didn’t go far enough, while advocacy groups and academics have said the law could be subject to legal challenge.

“In every piece of legislation, there’s a risk of it being contested by those who don’t agree with it,” Vallee said. “We consider that this bill is solid, it’s strong, it’s a bill that’s respectful of civil rights.”

(See Editorial)