By Alistair MacDonald
The French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec on Tuesday announced plans for wide-ranging legislation aimed at keeping religion and religious clothing out of the workplace, a move that has ignited a fierce debate about religious freedom and discrimination.
The measures, if passed, would ban public employees from wearing visible religious symbols, from turbans to skullcaps, and would allow small businesses the right to push back on religious demands, such as prayer time. While aping laws in France, the policies in the so-called Charter of Values are being seen by critics as part of the long-term campaign by the separatist minority government of Quebec to secede from Canada. Critics argue the laws are an attack on freedom of worship and multiculturalism, with religious groups, such as Muslims and Jews, saying they are being singled out for their style of worship.
The minority Parti Quebecois government says the laws treat everybody equally by ending special treatment for the religious at work. They are also aimed at enforcing secularism in government and discouraging clothing such as the burqa, which the Parti Quebecois says discriminates against women.
"We want rights and values that will be the source of harmony and cohesion," said Bernard Drainville, the Quebec provincial government's minister for democratic institutions and active citizenship. "That will apply to all Quebecers, regardless of our faith and religion."
France passed a ban on wearing religious symbols in schools in 2004 and effectively banned burqas in public via a 2010 law.
Legal experts and political rivals say the law may struggle to get off the ground in Canada. The PQ will need the support of another party to get the bill through provincial parliament. Jason Kenney, a federal government minister, said he was "very concerned" by the proposed legislation and said the federal government will challenge any law in courts if they deem it unconstitutional. Lawyers say the law may infringe constitutional rights on freedom of religion and expression.
Political analysts say they believe the Parti Quebecois will relish these challenges, allowing them to argue that Quebec's identity and future can only be safeguarded outside of Canada.
According to an opinion poll taken by researchers Leger, 57% of Quebecers think the charter is a good idea, while 28% believe it a bad one. The province has a postwar history of fighting against religious interference in state activities. In the 1960s, the so-called Quiet Revolution saw Quebecers loosen the grip of a Catholic Church that had dominated education and health care in the province. The process has left Quebec with some of the lowest church attendance rates in Canada.
The proposed charter has come under fire from public-sector unions.
"If you want to wear a cross on your neck, that's your business," said Yves Parenteau, an official at teachers union, Alliance des Professeures et Professeurs de Montreal. "Just as long as you don't talk about the crucifixion in class."
In an increasingly diverse province, many religious groups have also come out against the measures.
"This is painful, it's an encroachment on freedoms that are guaranteed constitutionally," said Salam Elmenyawi, the president of the Muslim Council of Montreal.
Mr. Elmenyawi and others say the charter is an attack on multiculturalism, in which different cultures are encouraged. Pauline Marois, Quebec's premier, stoked this view when she told one local paper that multiculturalism in the U.K. had fed homegrown terrorism and social unrest. The bill's critics say it lets off many Christian traditions, allowing, for instance, Christmas trees in public spaces.
Mr. Drainville said the measures were, in part, aimed at promoting Quebec's cultural heritage. "We are all Quebecers, regardless of our origins," he said.
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