Quebec government tables secularism law setting rules for religious symbols

The Coalition Avenir Québec government is proposing a new law that would prohibit public workers in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols such as a hijab, kippa or turban.

The bill, titled, “An act respecting the laicity of the state,” aims to affirm religious neutrality in a manner that “ensures a balance between the collective rights of the Quebec nation and human rights and freedoms.”

The ban would apply to Quebec Crown prosecutors, judges and any public employee who carries a firearm.

It would also extend to teachers and principals, though there will be a grandfather clause in the bill to exempt teachers already working in the classroom.

There are also new rules that would require citizens to uncover their faces to receive a public service for identification or security purposes.

The previous Liberal government adopted a similar rule for receiving services, but it was suspended after civil liberties groups argued it violated the Canadian and Quebec charters, which “provide for freedom of conscience and religion.”

Working around charter challenges

The new bill invokes the notwithstanding clause to work around any potential charter challenges.

The clause, officially called Section 33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, allows provincial or federal authorities to override certain sections of the charter for a period of five years.

The CAQ government also introduced a motion promising to move the crucifix that hangs in the National Assembly’s main chamber to a different part of the building. The motion passed unanimously.

The crucifix was installed above the Speaker’s chair in 1936. A government-commissioned report into secularism and identity issues recommended in 2008 that it be removed, but no government has done so.

Bill represents ‘our values’: Legault

Premier FrançoisLegault said Thursday he agreed to exempt current teachers and move the crucifix in an attempt to secure greater support for the proposal and, he hopes, to put an end to the debate once and for all.

“What I want to try to do is in the next few weeks is to unite as many Quebecers as possible. That’s why we accepted to make compromises. But I’m very proud of the bill we tabled today. It represents values, our values, and it’s important.”

Before the bill was tabled, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday that he was concerned about the CAQ’s plan.

“It’s unthinkable to me that in a free society we would legitimize discrimination against citizens based on their religion.”

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