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With Echoes Of France, Debate On Religion Divides Quebec

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois stands to support a motion regarding the controversial values charter at the Parti Quebecois Convention in Montreal on Sunday.
Christinne Muschi
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois stands to support a motion regarding the controversial values charter at the Parti Quebecois Convention in Montreal on Sunday.

The government in Canada's Quebec province has proposed a "secularism charter" that would, among other things, ban government workers from wearing religious symbols.

A similar debate played out in France nearly a decade ago and has now traveled across the Atlantic to the French-speaking Canadian province.

Here's more from Al-Jazeera:

"Formerly called the 'Charter of Quebec values,' the secularism charter known as Bill 60 would ban state employees from wearing clothing or displaying objects 'that overtly indicate a religious affiliation.' This includes headscarves, yarmulkes, turbans, or 'larger-than-average' crucifixes. ...

"The charter also bans public employees and customers receiving government services from covering their faces. While the regulations will go into force one year after the charter becomes law — with a five-year transition period in some cases — new employees of public institutions would be required to adapt to the charter immediately upon being hired."

Quebec's Premier Pauline Marois and her Parti Quebecois say the measure would preserve Quebec's fundamental values, including gender equality and the separation of church and state.

Opposition parties have rejected the proposed law, and Marois' government will likely have to amend the measure since it does not currently hold an outright majority.

Demonstrators in Montreal protest the proposed Charter of Values on Sept. 14.
Christinne Muschi / Reuters/Landov
Demonstrators in Montreal protest the proposed Charter of Values on Sept. 14.

Divisive Measure

Quebecois appear to be evenly split, with French speakers more likely to support it than English speakers.

"We're in favor. I think it's a very good project," Michel Lincourt, a member of the national council of the Mouvement laïque québécois, the province's secularist movement, told Al-Jazeera.

Still, the province's human rights commission has warned that the charter violates Quebec's Charter of Rights and will fail if subject to a legal challenge. Others warn that the measure will hurt the province.

"Some people will leave Quebec because of this. Some people will leave their jobs because of this," Rémi Bourget, a lawyer and president of Québec Inclusif, a group mobilizing against the proposal, told Al-Jazeera.

"Freedom of religion in Quebec, in North America, includes the right to wear something that shows your religion. When the government is sending the message that these rights are not so fundamental anymore, we think this is a slippery slope," Bourget said.


Writing in The New York Times, Martin Patriquin, the Quebec bureau chief for Maclean's, notes that the "place of religion remains a stubborn conundrum" in Quebec.

"Quebecers are proud, militantly so, of their secularism, having rejected the Catholic Church's control in areas like health and education in the so-called Quiet Revolution a half-century ago," writes Patriquin, who opposes the measure.

And, he notes, that far from unifying the province, "the issue has underscored the divisions between the chaotic, multicultural island city of Montreal and the mostly white hinterland beyond its shores."

He adds: "A vast majority of immigrants to Quebec settle in Montreal, where support for the Parti Québécois is weak. Thanks to immigration laws favoring French-speaking countries, notably those in North Africa, Montreal's Muslim community has doubled over the last 10 years. It has become a tempting target."

But supporters of the measure say that it's not about any one religion.

"The charter will clearly establish a line of demarcation between, on the one hand, the freedom of religion of those who would display openly their allegiance to a particular religious community, and, on the other hand, the freedom of conscience of others — whether they be of the same religion, or a different one, or have no religion — who should not be forced to be exposed to such displays from the state and its representatives," David Rand, president of Montreal-based Atheist Freethinkers, wrote in the Globe and Mail.

Parallels To France

The attempt to pass the legislation follows France's 2004 ban on religious symbols in public schools, a measure that the government said was in line with the French policy of religious neutrality in schools.

That measure was criticized across the world, with Human Rights Watch saying it violated religious freedom.

In 2011, the French government banned Muslim veils in public places. At the time of the 2011 ban, supporters called it a step to preserve French culture while many French Muslims said they felt as if France had betrayed them.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Krishnadev Calamur is NPR's deputy Washington editor. In this role, he helps oversee planning of the Washington desk's news coverage. He also edits NPR's Supreme Court coverage. Previously, Calamur was an editor and staff writer at The Atlantic. This is his second stint at NPR, having previously worked on NPR's website from 2008-15. Calamur received an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri.