Abstract

A disproportionate number of the Supreme Court of Canada’s recent cases on freedom of religion under s. 2(a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms come out of Quebec and involve claims for reasonable accommodation. These decisions represent a point of national cleavage in two respects. First, in each case the Quebec Court of Appeal rejected the section 2(a) claims, and the Supreme Court of Canada overturned its decision. Second, the Supreme Court has often divided on national lines with one or more francophone judges from Quebec writing a concurrence or a sharp dissent. Moreover, francophone judges from outside Quebec have also broken ranks with their colleagues. The cleavages on the Supreme Court have sometimes tracked a large and arguably growing divide between Quebec and the rest of Canada on these questions. I link this line of cases to earlier disputes about the constitutionality of Quebec’s policies to promote the French language that were ultimately resolved by the Court. The fact that the Court spoke in a single voice in those earlier cases can be explained, in part, by the need to preserve its institutional legitimacy. This time, the point of dispute is not language, but religion. The Supreme Court is groping incrementally toward a kind of consensus position on the character of the “neutral” state to close this divide within the Court against the backdrop of an intense political debate on these issues in Quebec.

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