Posted on June 7, 2018

Quebec Begins Training ‘Accommodation Officers’ to Assess Religious Sincerity for Holidays, Meals

Graeme Hamilton, National Post, June 5, 2018

Beginning next month, at least one employee in every Quebec government body, municipality, transit agency, school board, university, daycare and hospital will need a new skill: judging the sincerity of religious beliefs.

Across the province, hundreds of “accommodation officers” are getting crash courses on whether to accept or reject requests for accommodations made on religious grounds, such as meals respecting dietary restrictions or time off for religious holidays.

In recently published guidelines, the provincial government says the officers will apply a number of criteria established over time thorough jurisprudence, including whether the request for a religious accommodation stems from a “sincerely held belief.”

This month’s training blitz is the final chapter in enacting Bill 62, the Liberal government’s controversial legislation that it hoped would settle a decade-old debate over the place of religion in Quebec’s public sphere.

But there is no sign the law has settled anything. Its most controversial provision, prohibiting people from giving or receiving public services with such face-covering religious garments as the niqab and burka, has been suspended pending a court challenge.

And the entire law could be short-lived, as the front-running Coalition Avenir Québec has promised to “tear it up” if elected in the Oct. 1 provincial election.

In comments last month about the new guidelines on religious accommodations, Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée did little to dispel the impression that the law is a solution in search of a problem. “There is no invasion of requests for religious accommodation, as some would have you believe,” Vallée told a legislature committee May 16.

In fact, less than five per cent of the 582 complaints of rejected accommodations received by the provincial human rights commission in the last five years alleged religious discrimination. The large majority — 90 per cent — related to physical disabilities.

The new guidelines for dealing with requests for religious accommodations take effect July 1. It is expected that existing employees will take on the work.

The government has published a 15-page guide aimed at clarifying the process, but its instructions are vague. “A request may be reasonable in a large organization, but unreasonable in a small one,” the guide says. “The analysis is carried out on a case-by-case basis. It is important to be innovative and creative to find a solution acceptable to all.”

To be approved, an accommodation must address a situation of discrimination under the provincial Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, it must be based on sincere religious beliefs, it must be consistent with the principles of equality of the sexes and state religious neutrality, and it must not cause undue hardship for the government agency concerned.

Isabelle Marier St-Onge, an aide to Vallée, said it was impossible to offer a template for specific accommodation requests. She gave the example of two women police officers seeking to wear the Muslim headscarf known as the hijab, one in Montreal and one in Quebec City. The one in Montreal might be prepared to wear a sports-type hijab posing no safety risk, while the one in Quebec City might insist on a more free-flowing garment that would pose a danger.

“The Montreal request could be accepted and the Quebec City one refused,” Marier St-Onge said.

While the safety issue in her example makes an accommodation officer’s job relatively easy, things will undoubtedly become trickier when trying to establish whether a request is based on a sincerely held belief.

The guidance from the government states: “The religious belief that is asserted must be in good faith, neither fictitious nor capricious, and must not be an artifice. It is not necessary for that practice or belief to be based on a religious precept recognized by established religious authorities or shared by a majority of believers.”

Supreme Court judges have wrestled with these questions; now it will fall to mid-level bureaucrats.

Nathalie Roy, secularism critic for the Coalition party, said the government should have provided more specific guidance, drawing on previous cases adjudicated by the rights commission. “I worry that the door is being swung wide open to subjectivity in these decisions,” she told the legislature committee.

Her party, like the opposition Parti Québécois, wants stricter rules barring religious symbols for all state employees in a position of authority, from police officers to teachers. “For us, a school is not a church . . . and a police car is not a place of worship either,” Roy said.

Vallée accuses the opposition parties of seizing on the secularism issue to sow division.

“This question of identity is polarizing … and certain political parties will no doubt try to exploit it in the coming months,” she said at the committee hearing.