According to the National Post, Amnesty International has stepped into the contentious debate about Quebec’s proposed Charter of Values legislation.

One might assume Amnesty International would support legislation that is allegedly intended to protect citizens from feeling coerced into supporting any religion. In fact Amnesty sees the proposed charter as a direct threat to vulnerable members of society:

MONTREAL — Amnesty International is wading into the debate over Quebec’s controversial charter of values, arguing that the plan would limit “fundamental rights” and further stigmatize vulnerable women.

The Canadian branch of the human-rights organization says the Parti Quebecois proposal would violate Canadian and international law for infringing on freedom of expression and religion.

Amnesty International, who presumably know a little about protecting potentially vulnerable people, points out that,

people, and particularly for women, who might be coerced into wearing a religious symbol, prohibiting them from wearing it will not solve the problem… The people who had coerced them will still go unpunished, while the people who have been coerced will be punished in a number of ways, such as losing their jobs and hence their right to work and risking becoming isolated and stigmatized in their communities.

As so often when those in authority, in this case the PQ government, do not listen sensitively to the people in whose interest they govern, the complexities of peoples’ life situations have escaped the Quebec authorities.

It is hard to comprehend why, according to a Leger-Marketing survey conducted for the Montreal Gazette which questioned 1,001 Quebecers between Sept. 17 and Sept. 19, 52% of those surveyed favour the plan. What does it say about a province that 53% of the population appear to favour removing from a minority of their citizens, the right to freely engage in an utterly harmless religious practice?

At the same time in another part of the world,

Teachers at an Islamic school have complained that they are being ordered to wear the hijab – even if they are not Muslim.

It must be confusing to be Muslim in the free democratic world. Some places are contemplating imposing laws that will make it impossible for you to freely practice your religion. In other places people who do not follow your faith are mandated to take up your practices regardless of their belief.
Making laws around religious practice is a lot like practicing censorship. It becomes enormously complex. It is hard to know where to draw the lines. Legislation that was intended to protect one body of people, risks restricting the freedom of another group. It is hard to know where it will stop when governments start making laws that are intended to dictate personal behaviour.
With chilling prescience, Heinrich Heine, the 19c. German Jewish poet who converted to Judaism from the Christian faith of his birth, famously wrote in 1823,
Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.
No one sets out to begin “burning human beings.” But larger actions follow from smaller apparently harmless choices. When the freedom of religious practice is curtailed, even in the most apparently harmless ways, a society is headed in a direction that may lead to consequences no one imagined.
Governments bear a fundamental responsibility to protect the right of all people to choose any practices that do not obviously infringe upon the freedom of others or bring harm to the community. It is a dangerous precedent when governments begin to compromise this responsibility in the interests of some vague abstract ideological commitment.