Religious Tolerance on the Decline

Quebec’s Bill 21 which bans public teachers, police officers, government lawyers and other authority figures from wearing religious symbols at work has met vigorous criticism. Its critics claim it violates religious freedom and discriminates against specific religions. Given that it seems aimed particularly at Muslim women who wear the hijab, it may indeed be discriminatory. Predictably, the law is now before the courts.

Quebec becomes the first place in North America to institute such a ban. If it is indeed anti-religious, or at least anti one religion, it is part of a worldwide trend. A recent report by the Pew (Read more…) Center claims that, “Over the decade from 2007 to 2017, government restrictions on religion—laws, policies and actions by state officials that restrict religious beliefs and practices—increased markedly around the world.” I am no lover of religion, and wouldn’t waste a moment defending it, but as a democrat the erosion of a basic freedom is of concern to me. Freedom of religion is commonly a fundamental right in democratic constitutions, as it is in ours, an obstacle Quebec is attempting to avoid by invoking the Charter’s notwithstanding clause.

According to the Pew report, 52 governments now impose high or very high levels of restrictions on religion, up from 40 in 2007. The most prevalent types of restrictions include laws and policies restricting religious freedom and government favoritism of religious groups through funding for religious education, property and clergy. Social hostility involving religion, including harassment by private individuals and groups, has also risen.

The level of restrictions is highest in the Middle East-North Africa region, although some of the biggest increases have been in other regions, including Europe, where more governments have been placing limits on Muslim women’s dress, and sub-Saharan Africa, where some groups have tried to impose their religious norms on others through kidnappings and forced conversions. Social hostilities have also been consistently high in the Middle East-North Africa region.

The top twenty countries that show favoritism to a religion are all Muslim except for Great Britain, Greece and Iceland which have state religions, the latter two government funded. Many countries require some form of registration for religious groups to operate. For example, in China only certain religious groups are allowed to register with the government and hold worship services, and in Saudi Arabia public practice of all non-Muslim religions is illegal. China has infamously sent hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims to “reeducation camps” while Myanmar has committed widespread abuses against the Muslim Rohingya.

Considering the kinds and degree of violence religious groups around the world suffer from, Quebec’s law looks pretty tame. Nonetheless, it is a step in the wrong direction as its invoking of the Charter’s notwithstanding clause testifies to. May its opponents have success in the courts.