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Quebec proposes ban on religious clothing for public workers

Published:Sunday | April 14, 2019 | 12:00 AM


A proposal to ban many public employees from wearing religious clothing is creating a fiery debate in the Canadian province of Quebec, where people are fighting to freely practise their religion – or to be free of it.

The measure introduced late last month would prohibit civil servants, teachers, nurses, bus drivers, lawyers and other people who interact with the public from wearing symbols of religion while at work.

It would apply to Sikh turbans, Christian jewellery and Jewish yarmulkes, but the focus of the controversy has been over hijabs worn by many Muslim women in Quebec.

“The proposed legislation will affect Muslims more than other groups as they are the fastest-growing religious group,” said Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto. Muslims represent about three per cent of Quebec’s 8.3 million people.

Thousands of demonstrators attended a recent march in Montreal to protest the measure, with some holding signs saying, “No one tells women what they can wear” and “It’s what’s in my head, not on my head, that matters.”

Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is from Montreal, has spoken ill of Bill 21: “It’s unthinkable to me that in a free society we would legitimise discrimination against citizens based on their religion,” he said.

Christian, Jewish, Muslim and even secular groups across the province have denounced the measure, as have school boards, political parties and some municipal leaders.

However, on Friday, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said that while she personally opposes the bill, Montreal would not disobey it if it is passed.

That said, next week city councillors will vote on a bipartisan declaration that argues Quebec is already secular and doesn’t require additional legislation.

Earlier this month, Quebec Premier Francois Legault told reporters that the bill would reinforce gender equality in the province. The new measure would also help him make good on an electoral promise.

“I think at this point in Quebec in 2019, people who are in an authority position, which includes teachers (shouldn’t wear religious symbols), I think it’s reasonable. It’s fair,” he said. “We have to think about what’s best for our children.”

The history behind the measure is rooted in Quebec’s ‘Quiet Revolution’ of the 1960s, a movement that weaned the province away from political and cultural domination by the Catholic Church. But critics also say it’s motivated by more recent growing anti-Muslim sentiment.

The debate also pits two ideas of secularism against one another: a stricter European interpretation and a North American version that embraces the idea of religious freedom.