By Mark Michael

Religious leaders in Quebec are criticizing new restrictions on worship gatherings announced on September 20 as arbitrary and a violation of religious freedom. COVID-19 infections have recently surged in the province, and the new restrictions class worship gatherings with events like barbecues and weddings that are restricted to 25 people in the urban zones where infections have climbed most dramatically, while concert halls and movie theaters are permitted up to 250 attendees at a time.

The Rt. Rev. Bruce Myers, Bishop of Quebec, described the new restrictions as “incomprehensible” in a September 21 Facebook post. He said, “Among other things, it creates the completely illogical possibility that one of our church buildings would be allowed to host a concert for 250 spectators but forbidden from having more than 25 people — in the very same building — for a worship service, even though both groups would be taking the same precautions around physical distancing, mask wearing, hand sanitizing, etc.”

Myers described Quebec’s religious communities as “proactive partners with the rest of Quebec society in the collective fight against the virus,” and noted that no coronavirus outbreaks have been traced back to worship gatherings. Anglican churches in the five dioceses within Quebec, Myers said, had remained closed throughout the summer, being especially cautious about the potential of spreading infection. Some have still not yet opened to the public.

Quebec’s Assembly of Catholic Bishops, speaking in the name of the interfaith Quebec Interreligious Roundtable, said pointedly in a September 21 public letter that their concerns were being ignored. “While government authorities in neighboring provinces have maintained a direct and constant contact with religious leaders, no communication of this type exists in Quebec. This situation is disappointing and unacceptable.”

Provincial authorities, the Catholic bishops further allege, seem to completely ignore the value religious communities bring. “In these troubled times, thousands of Quebecers find consolation and a source of resilience in the practice of their religion, which benefits the entire population.” They continue, “This service to the community appears to us necessary for helping our communities to get through this health crisis.”

Myers asked civic authorities “to recognize the unique role faith communities play in the lives of hundreds of thousands of Quebecers — including in sustaining them through this pandemic — and to have any limits on our capacity to meet together applied in a consistent way, based on reason and scientific evidence.”

The religious leaders’ allegations of unjust treatment, couched in claims about free expression and a recognition of religious communities’ contribution to public welfare, is shaped by several decades of debate about Quebec’s unique policy of laicite, or secularism. In contrast to Anglo-American models of government regulation of religion, which focus on the state’s duty to protect free religious expression, the secularist model, pattern on France’s groundbreaking 1905 separation of church and state, emphasizes the state’s responsibility to protect civic life from religious interference.

McGill University professor Yvan Lamonde traced the concept’s lineage in a 2019 Toronto Star article about the province’s controversial Bill 21, which bans teachers and government officials from wearing religious symbols like hijabs and crucifixes while carrying out their duties. “In French intellectual culture predominantly, it means keeping religion away from the state — protecting the republic,” Lamonde said. “So any kind of encroachment, including the presence of religious symbols in public institutions, is viewed as a threat to the republic. … From that point of view, secularism is kind of a defensive stance.”

Throughout most of the province’s history the Roman Catholic Church held deep social power, directly controlling nearly all the province’s schools and hospitals, and aiming to uphold a traditional, conservative social order. Quebec was once popularly known as “the most Catholic place on earth.”

A series of reforms in the late 1960’s known as the Quiet Revolution stripped the church of its traditional privileges. A series of secularist laws ushered in a period of economic growth and social liberalization, which has left the formerly pious province with plummeting rates of church attendance and disaffiliation, as well as a dramatic depopulation from declines in birth rate.  A 2018 article by Matt Townsend, TLC’s former news editor, charts some effects of these changes for Anglicans in the province.

The Quebec controversy is similar to disputes within the United States over coronavirus restrictions and religious expression, especially the case Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley vs. Sisolak, which the Supreme Court considered in June 2020. Ultimately the court refused to overturn a Nevada pandemic regulation which restricted worship gatherings to 50 people, while allowing casinos, gyms, bars and restaurants to operate at 50% capacity.

Nevada argued that unlike houses of worship, casinos and other similar public venues are “highly regulated,” and that they could face “significant punishment” for refusing to comply with social distancing regulations. Calvary Chapel of Dayton argued that the law unfairly discriminated against religious communities and that their congregants would comply with rules for masking and social distancing, unlike most of the patrons at a crowded Las Vegas casino depicted in a June 4 photo submitted in their legal brief.

The Supreme Court rejected the church’s request to alter the state law. Three justices, however, joined in a pointed dissent written by Justice Samuel Alito, who described the law as one of a series of “unprecedented restrictions on personal liberty, including the free exercise of religion.”

In a separate dissent, Justice Neil Gorsuch argued that the case was a simple one, and that it ignored the real dangers to public health posed by the close gathering typical of casinos. Gorsuch quipped, “In Nevada, it seems, it is better to be in entertainment than religion. Maybe that is nothing new. But the First Amendment prohibits such obvious discrimination against the exercise of religion. The world we inhabit today, with a pandemic upon us, poses unusual challenges. But there is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel.”