Quebec rights body rules against Muslims in health-card case

Quebec rights body rules against Muslims in health-card case

MONTREAL — Women wearing religious face-coverings aren’t entitled to special treatment when receiving certain government services, the Quebec human rights commission said in a report likely to bolster attempts to curb religious accommodations in the province.

The rights commission has released a series of highly anticipated suggestions for dealing with accommodation issues faced by Quebec’s health insurance provider.

In the one likely to garner the most attention, the commission declared that women wearing niqabs or burkas have no right to demand to be identified by female health-care workers.

It said lifting a veil for a male worker to check their identity against a medicare card takes little time and, moreover, takes place in a neutral setting.

“In these conditions, the infringement of religious freedom of the client wearing a face-covering appears to us to be not significant,” said the commission’s 20-page ruling.

Quebec’s health-insurance board had asked the commission to weigh in on a number of hypothetical scenarios, including two involving Muslim headwear.

As a precautionary measure, the state insurance body put in place last fall a number of accommodation practises — ones which the human rights commission has now deemed unnecessary.

Of the more than 118,000 visitors to the Quebec Health Insurance Board’s Montreal office in 2008-09, only 10 people wearing a niqab asked for special dispensation.

The rulings — which are not legally binding — come as the so-called reasonable accommodations debate heats up again in Quebec, causing political headaches for the province’s Charest government.

Recent polls have suggested most Quebecers feel the Liberal government has been too accommodating towards newcomers to the province.

Immigration Minister Yolande James has been grilled by the Opposition Parti Quebecois, which demands that she do more to protect Quebec’s secular society and equality of the sexes.

James, however, welcomed the commission’s findings as justification of the government’s policies.

“I believe the ruling goes in the same direction the government has always defended — that is to say the equality of men and women,” James told reporters in Quebec City.

Along with the decision on face-coverings, the commission also ruled it unreasonable for patients to demand to be served by health-care workers not wearing a religious head-covering.

“The sole fact that an employee wears a hijab does not allow us to conclude that the services she must deliver will be in any way affected by her religious beliefs,” the commission said.

In the third scenario examined by the commission, it suggested people can’t refuse to be served by health-care workers because they don’t like their accent.

The latest storm over reasonable accommodation was spurred in part by the government’s proposal in February to amend provincial laws to allow Jewish schools to open on Sundays.

It was then fuelled by a controversy over the expulsion of a Muslim woman from government-sponsored language courses when she refused to remove her niqab.

In response to the growing pressure, the Charest government has promised to come up with concrete measures in the coming days to better deal with accommodation issues.

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