Unions against religious symbols

Montreal, Canada - No public servant - including Muslim teachers and judges - should be allowed to wear anything at work that shows what religion they belong to, leaders of Quebec's two biggest trade union federations and a civil-servants union told the Bouchard-Taylor commission yesterday.

"We think that teachers shouldn't wear any religious symbols - same thing for a judge in court, or a minister in the

National Assembly, or a policeman - certainly not," said René Roy, secretary-general of the 500,000-member Quebec Federation of Labour.

"The wearing of any religious symbol should be forbidden in the workplace of the civil service ... in order to ensure the secular character of the state," said Lucie Grandmont, vice-president of the 40,000-member Syndicat de la fonction publique du Québec.

Dress codes that ban religious expression should be part of a new "charter of secularism" - akin to the Charter of the French Language - that the Quebec government should adopt, said Claudette Carbonneau, president of the Confédération des syndicats nationaux.

Such a charter is needed "to avoid anarchy, to avoid treating (reasonable-accommodation) cases one by one," Carbonneau said yesterday, presenting a brief on behalf of the federation's 300,000 members at the commission's hearing at the Palais des congrès.

Same point of view at the 150,000-member Centrale des syndicats du Québec, which includes 100,000 who work in the school system, the commission heard.

Quebec needs a "fundamental law" akin to the Charter of Rights that sets out clearly that public institutions, laws and the state are all neutral when it comes to religion, said Centrale president Réjean Parent. The new law would also "define (people's) rights and duties ... in other words, the rules of living together."

Under a secular charter, employers would understand that they don't have to agree to accommodate religious employees if, for example, they ask to be segregated from people of the opposite sex, Carbonneau said.

Similarly, religious students in public schools would understand they can dress as they like, but not if it means wearing restrictive clothing like burqas, niqabs and chadors, which make communication difficult, she told commissioners Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor.

And in the courts, "there are cases that are clear - I wouldn't want to see a judge in a veil," she said. Judges need to appear "neutral" so as to inspire confidence in their judgment, she added.

The unions' anti-religious attitude - especially the CSN's idea to ban hijabs on teachers - got a cold reception from groups as disparate as a Muslim women's aid organization and the nationalist Société St. Jean Baptiste of Montreal.

"What that would do is close the door to Muslim women who want to teach," said Samaa Elibyari, a Montreal community radio host who spoke for the Canadian Council of Muslim Women. "It goes against religious freedoms that are guaranteed in the (Quebec) Charter of Rights."

Elibyari said Muslim women routinely face discrimination in the workplace. They don't need unions on their back, too.

"When a young teacher calls a school to see if she can do an internship, and is asked on the phone straight out: 'Do you wear the veil?'; when a cashier at a supermarket is fired and her boss tells her: 'The customers don't want to see that,' referring to the veil; when a secretary gets passed over for promotion even if she succeeds in all her French exams, and is told: 'Take off that tablecloth' - is that not discrimination?" Elibyari asked.

The commission is holding its final week of hearings this week in Montreal, bringing to an end a cross-Quebec tour that began in early September.