- Despite the Quebec religious symbols ban for public servants, religious groups are permitted to hand out flyers in the Montreal metro under current STM regulations.
- Though these activities by private individuals are not subject to the ban, their persistence appears to contradict the spirit of the new law.
Public response has been mixed after the Quebec government passed the controversial Bill 21, widely called the "Quebec religious symbols ban," earlier this summer. The law prohibits public servants from wearing religious symbols while performing their duties.
As the ban takes effect, however, the persistence of religious symbols and literature on public property is likely to raise a few eyebrows.
If you've taken the metro in Montreal at any point in your life, you might've seen Jehovah's Witnesses or Hare Krishna groups peacefully promoting the values of their beliefs by handing out flyers.
Because, of course, representatives from these are not public servants, their activities are not affected by Bill 21. But their mission to spread information on high-traffic public infrastructure, though harmless, appears to contradict the spirit of the ban — "to affirm the laicity of the State."
We reached out to the STM and asked them about their stance on religious groups in the wake of Bill 21.
Currently, the STM's official stance on this matter is as follows: (this statement, along with many others can be found on the STM's regulations page):
"A person could offer and distribute fliers of a non-commercial nature inside a metro station — fliers in which political, social or religious ideological views are expressed using a leaflet, pamphlet, brochure, newspaper, booklet or foldout page [...] the STM does not encourage this type of activity inside its property."
Crucially, the company itself does not align itself with any religious activities or displays inside the metro. If a religious group seeks to advertise in a metro station, it must be for a non-commercial purpose and must not impede with traffic circulation, station cleanliness, and safety protocol.
The STM prohibits the distribution of flyers within controlled zones beyond the metro turnstiles.
Should a religious group meet the standards and successfully obtain a permit, they have the green light to set up.
Quebec's sometimes murky definitions on what constitutes a religious symbol have also been heavily scrutinized.
However, an amendment states that a religious symbol is "a garment, a symbol, a jewel, an adornment, an accessory or headgear will be considered a religious sign if it is connected with a religious belief or conviction, or if it is reasonably considered to refer to religious affiliation." It might stand that pamphlets, despite being connected to religious beliefs, don't qualify under the law.
An STM spokesperson tells MTL Blog that:
"In accordance with the "Charte des droits et libertés" [Charter of Rights and Values] and Supreme court decisions in this regard, our by-law states: 'Outside of the controlled area of a metro station, it is permitted to display, offer or distribute a book, newspaper, pamphlet, handbill, leaflet or any other printed material:(a) free of charge;(b) expressing a political, social or religious ideology; and(c) subject to the other restrictions in the present By-law.'"
For the STM, therefore, it's a matter of free speech.
Religious groups cannot display or hand out flyers in Montreal's metro system without proper authorization.
As per the STM, "under any other circumstance or in any other place, such activities are forbidden without authorization. That doesn’t change with the entry into force of the Bill 21."