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Force To Be Free?

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The Quebec government requires everyone to vote with their faces uncovered, even if they have religious reasons for not doing so. Elections Canada has issued a ruling permitting women to vote with their faces covered in federal byelections in Quebec, although the rule will still apply in provincial elections. On balance, I would side with the federal government and zuzu over The Liberal Avenger on this issue:

  • I don’t believe that, at least on their face, Quebec’s actions should be held to violate the guarantee of religious freedom in Section 2 a) of the Charter. Over the years I’ve become more convinced that Scalia’s broadly criticized opinion in Oregon v. Smith was correct; unless a regulation is just a pretext for religious discrimination, fairly applied general regulations representing a legitimate state interest can burden the exercise of religion.
  • Even if the Quebec government can do it, however, we need to ask whether it should. Absent a showing that facial covering was being used to a significant extent to commit voter fraud, I cannot agree that this regulation is remotely justifiable. The state should accommodate minority religions absent a good reason not to do so.
  • Although I certainly agree that “multiculturalism and tolerance should not serve as a pretext for denying gender equality,” to think that this prohibition on ornamental choices advances gender equality in any significant way is silly. I certainly agree that “multiculturalism” cannot justify domestic violence, coerced genital mutilation, denying emergency contraception (although, oddly, that last form of multicultural exemption seems to get brought up a lot less when conservatives gin up these largely phony dilemmas), etc. But people are fooling themselves if they think that forcing Muslim women to vote with their faces uncovered does anything for gender equality. In cases where Muslim women in relatively egalitarian relationships with men are forced not to be covered, the regulation represents a diminution of women’s freedom. In cases where women are coerced in some way to wear facial covering to symbolize their subordinate status, the gain to women’s freedom of compelling them to remove their facial covering every few years to vote are trivial. The law is simply too crude an instrument to effectively distinguish between these cases, and it is obvious that similar regulations would not (and should not) be applied to women from the majority group. Non-Muslim women, as we know, also feel compelled to engage in any number of burdensome and expensive fashion practices that most men do not. Before they are permitted to vote, would the Quebec government force women to abandon makeup, wear flats, and meet a minimum pubic hair quota? Obviously not; that would be ridiculous. Why it’s any less ridiculous when applied to Muslim women I can’t tell you.
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