The Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) government tabled its controversial bill on Thursday to prohibit public sector employees in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols at work.
Bill 21, “An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State,” represents the province’s reaffirmation to separate church and state.
WATCH: Quebec Premier François Legault says he is “very proud” of the province’s secularism bill, saying it represents “our values.”
It affects teachers, judges, police officers, prison guards, Crown prosecutors and other public servants in what the government considers to be positions of authority.
There was silence on one side of the National Assembly as Immigration, Diversity and Inclusiveness Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, who is responsible for the bill, tabled the proposed legislation.
“Wearing religious symbols is not allowed,” Jolin-Barrette insisted, when asked what the specific criteria behind the ban would be.
“Any wearing of religious symbols is not allowed. Size doesn’t matter, how visible it is doesn’t matter. It is not allowed.”
However, it has a provision permitting current employees in those positions to continue wearing their religious symbols.
“It’s a very important day today and what I want to try to do in the next few weeks is to unite as many Quebecers as possible,” Quebec Premier François Legault said.
“That’s why we accepted to make compromises, but I’m very proud of the bill we tabled today and I think it represents values — our values — and that’s important.”
In an about-face before the bill was tabled, the government said it would propose a motion calling for the withdrawal of the crucifix from the provincial legislature.
“What we want is to show all Quebecers that we are also ready to make compromises on the grandfather clause, on the crucifix, in order to get as much support as possible because my goal is really to unite Quebecers,” he insisted.
The bill fulfills an election promise that the CAQ maintains has widespread support from across the province.
“Some find that we’ve gone too far; others, not enough. We think we’ve settled perfectly in the middle,” Jolin-Barrette insisted.
WATCH BELOW: Quebec parties divided over religious symbols
The bill will preemptively invoke the charter’s notwithstanding clause to block court challenges that invoke rights violations.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has expressed concern over the plan, urging Legault to think carefully before invoking the notwithstanding clause to uphold the proposal. On Thursday, he said the bill opens the door to discrimination.
“I think one of the things that a lot of Quebecers are going to be asking in the coming hours and days is about how this proposed law is actually going to work,” he said.
“And quite frankly, I expect a large number of Quebecers to have some serious questions about that, because Quebecers, like all Canadians, are proud of living in a free and just society, and I don’t think a lot of people feel that in a free society we should be legitimizing discrimination of our citizens based on religion.”
Over the last few weeks, opposition to the government’s plan has grown.
WATCH BELOW: EMSB community voices opposition to proposed religious symbol ban
On Wednesday night, the English Montreal School Board (EMSB) adopted a motion declaring its refusal to implement legislation restricting the wearing of religious symbols.
“We believe in the secularity of the state while supporting an individual’s right to freedom of religion,” said EMSB chair Angela Mancini in a statement.
Civil rights groups and religious organizations argue the bill is primarily aimed at Muslim women who wear the hijab.
WATCH BELOW: The FAE is saying a firm ‘no’ to any headcount singling out teachers wearing religious symbols
On its end, the Fédération autonome de l’Enseignement (FAE) has already filed a legal challenge against the provincial government over its attempts to track the number of teachers that wear religious symbols on the job.
The federation is one of the largest in Quebec, representing nine unions and about 43,000 teachers in the province.
It argued the government’s tactics to force schools to provide information on religious symbols worn by their employees are unconstitutional, go against Quebec’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms and should never happen again.
— with files from The Canadian Press
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