Northern Exposure

Religious Accommodation Versus Gender Equality

By Dominique Launay

In the province of Quebec, a woman was asked to leave two different French classes in Montreal. The woman, a recent immigrant from Egypt, refused to remove her face cover. After being allowed to sit at the front of the class (so all men were behind her) and make presentations with her back to the class, she asked the three men in the class to move away from her and refused to sit around a U-table with them to converse in French. The case made headlines in Canada and illustrated the tension between gender equality and religious rights.

Human rights decisions
That tension flared into more debate in Quebec with two new rulings by Quebec’s Human Rights Commission.

In one case, the Quebec Commission decided that a woman wearing a niqab could not demand to be served by another woman when dealing with the Quebec Health Insurance Board. Concluding that religious beliefs cannot stand in the way of gender equality, the Commission found that when a woman wearing the Islamic face covering is required to identify herself and to proceed with the photo session needed to produce a health insurance card, the Health Insurance Board has no obligation to accommodate her request to be served by a woman. The Commission ruled that in this case freedom of religion was not significantly undermined. The Health Insurance Board did not need to accommodate the woman.

In the second case, a client refused to be served by a health board employee wearing a hijab – a traditional headscarf that does not cover the face. The Quebec Commission ruled that the garment had no bearing on the delivery of services and should be allowed to be worn. The Commission stated that the incident reflected a clash of values more than an infringement on the client’s freedom of religion or conscience.

Bill 94
The Human Rights Commission is not the only entity in Quebec dealing with women’s rights to wear burkas, hijabs, and niqabs. Quebec’s government has gone a step further – introducing Bill 94 in March. If Bill 94 becomes law, Quebec will refuse all government services, including education and non-emergency health care, to Muslim women wearing face masks. The bill would mean that gender equality clearly trumps religious accommodation, at least in Quebec.

What it means for employers
There is no doubt that these rulings from the Quebec Human Rights Commission and the principles set out in Bill 94 will spark more debate. Even though they apply only to public services for the time being, one can only ask whether these principles will also be applicable to the private sector and if so to what extent? Until we receive further guidance from the courts, employers must approach this matter with precaution and examine each request based on the freedom of religion on its own merits. The basic principle remains: a Canadian employer has a duty to accommodate an employee up to the point of undue hardship.

Contact the author Dominique Launay

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