Bad Poetry

“A statute is written to entrap meaning, a poem to escape it.” So writes Hillary Mantel in Bring Up the Bodies. That’s true ― normally. But some statutes are in fact written to escape meaning rather than to capture it. They are usually bad statutes, and often bad poetry. What was first mooted as the Charter of Secularism, then became the Charter of Québec Values, and has now become Bill no. 60: Charter affirming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality and equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests ― which, following André Pratte, I will from now on refer to, for brevity and clarity’s sake, as the Charter of Shame ― is a case in point.

I have criticized the Charter of Shame repeatedly (my posts on its various versions are collected here), arguing that it was unjust, illiberal, discriminatory, and indeed reminiscent of some (early) Nazi laws. All of these criticisms remain in force. The bill that Bernard Drainville finally presented yesterday differs only in minor ways from the proposals made public a couple of months ago. But having the text of the bill (a pdf document is available here) makes it possible to examine not only the substance but the form which the PQ’s xenophobia has taken.

The bill’s very first clause is a muddle:

In the pursuit of its mission, a public body must remain neutral in religious matters and reflect the secular nature of the State, while making allowance, if applicable, for the emblematic and toponymic elements of Québec’s cultural heritage that testify to its history.

But the real question, all long, has been what it means to “remain neutral in religious matters.” Does it, for instance, mean not having town council meetings open with prayers? What if the prayer, as the Québec Court of Appeal has held, is not really a religious exercise but an element of Québec’s cultural heritage? Can a prayer really be that? The bill does nothing to answer these questions ― it is not meant to.

Consider next the Charter of Shame’s most discussed and most controversial provision, the ban on public employees wearing religious symbols. Mr. Drainville used little drawings to explain that it is meant to apply to the Muslim veil or the yarmulke, as well to large crosses,  but not to  small crosses, or crescent or star of David pendants. But a bill cannot use pitcograms ― it has to find a verbal formula to convey meaning. They say that an image is worth a thousand words, but clause 5 of the Charter of Shame makes do with just 33:

In the exercise of their functions, personnel members of public bodies must not wear objects such as headgear, clothing, jewelry or other adornments which, by their conspicuous nature, overtly indicate a religious affiliation.

What meaning does it convey though? Does a hijab have a “conspicuous nature”? Perhaps to Mr. Drainville it does. To those less fearful of people who look differently from themselves, it might not. To an Islamist fanatic, it is not the hijab but an uncovered head that is conspicuous. A court called upon to interpret this provision will not adopt a fanatic’s viewpoint ― but must it adopt Mr. Drainville’s? Conversely, a small cross of the sort that many Christians surely “overtly indicates a religious affiliation,” and ― depending on just how it is worn ― it can easily be visible. Who says it is not conspicuous?

Another well-publicized requirement of the Charter of Shame is the ban on full face veils that applies both to public employees and to those receiving public services. But does it? Clause 7 provides that “[p]ersons must ordinarily have their face uncovered when receiving services from personnel members of public bodies” (emphasis mine), and its second paragraph specifically contemplates the possibility of “accommodation.” Presumably, Mr. Drainville is not quite heartless enough to throw niqab-wearing women out of emergency rooms, but reading this bill, we can hardly tell.

And so it goes on, from fudge to equivocation to understatement. Will the obligations imposed by the Charter of Shame apply to those in the private sector who do business with the government? If the government so decides if “warranted by the circumstances” (clause 10). What will happen to employees who refuse to take off a religious symbol? They’ll get a talking to (clause 14). And what then? Will they be fired? Silence.

It is a staple of formal accounts of the Rule of Law that making law public is likely to make it, if not substantively better, then at least less bad, because legislators do not like to make their bad intentions clear. Yet we know that this is not always so; openly iniquitous laws are sometimes enacted. But it is true often enough. And so with the Charter of Shame: it is iniquitous enough, and yet in many ways it dares not proclaim the discrimination it works openly.

It is indeed a statute written to escape its own meaning. It is poetry, poetry of the worst kind, poetry that gives the Vogons’ a run for its money. It must not become law.

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