Quebec moves to ban religious symbols in public service

The measure is among those promised by Quebec Premier Francois Legault during an election campaign last year, after a decade of divisive debate on secularism and religious freedom that was influenced by a similar discourse in France.
The measure is among those promised by Quebec Premier Francois Legault during an election campaign last year, after a decade of divisive debate on secularism and religious freedom that was influenced by a similar discourse in France.PHOTO: AFP

MONTREAL (AFP) - Canada's Quebec province on Thursday (March 28) unveiled controversial draft legislation that would ban a significant section of public servants from wearing religious symbols such as a crucifix, yarmulke or hijab.

The measure - which applies to police, teachers and others in positions of authority - is expected to become law by June, with Premier Francois Legault's government holding a majority of seats in the Quebec legislature.

But it was swiftly panned by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who said: "For me, it's unthinkable (that) a free society would legitimise discrimination against anyone based on religion."

Montreal mayor Valerie Plante voiced "serious concern about the message that this Bill sends to minorities about their fundamental rights".

The important thing, she said, was that the process of making laws was secular, not that people divested themselves of religious attire and symbols.

Teachers unions said they would not enforce the law, while pundits and the government's own lawyers, according to reports, anticipate a court challenge for contravening Canadians' Charter right to personal religious freedom.

The Quebec government, however, has already made it clear that it would invoke a rarely used constitutional clause to quash any rights challenges.

"Some people will find that we are going too far, others not enough, and we are convinced that we have struck the right balance," Quebec Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette told a press conference.

The government said the measure - combined with the removal of a cross installed in the main chamber of the national assembly in 1936 - underscored Quebec's break with religion a half century ago, when it rejected the Catholic Church's powerful influence in local politics.

'Serene debate'

The secularism Bill would also enshrine into law a rule previously adopted by Quebec that denies government services to people wearing face veils, reflecting a backlash against Muslim immigration.

Mr Jolin-Barrette argued that this was intended to simply bolster safety and security by being able to verify the identity of people accessing services.

Both measures, along with curbs on immigration, were promised by Mr Legault during an election campaign last year, after a decade of divisive debate on secularism and religious freedom that was influenced by a similar discourse in France.

In addition to France, eight other European countries enforce restrictions on religious attire.

"We will do whatever we can to bring together people," Mr Legault said on Thursday before the law was presented.

"That should be the objective of everyone in the weeks ahead, to have a serene debate. We are responding to what a large majority of Quebeckers want."

The opposition, however, accused the government of rushing the legislation, with Liberal Helene David saying not enough time has been allotted to debate its impacts on "living together" as a society.

This is the fourth attempt by successive Quebec governments to pass a secularism law.

What began as a pushback against a few cases of religious accommodation of minorities in public institutions and private businesses led to a public inquiry.

The tribunal heard testimony on the merits of secularism that ranged from the metaphysical to the absurd - such as outrage that an eatery had removed pork from its pea soup to accommodate Muslims.

Jews and Sikhs were also the subject of controversy, but the focus shifted to Muslims - Muslim women in particular.

One previous government tried but failed to impose a values charter that would have limited "ostentatious" displays of religiosity.

In the end, the regulations were narrowed to apply only to public servants.