New secularist group expresses support for Quebec charter

MONTREAL — The Globe and Mail

A crucifix is seen over the speaker's chair at the National Assembly in Quebec City in this March 13, 2008 file photo. (MATHIEU BELANGER/REUTERS)

The Parti Québécois government has won backing for its controversial Charter of Quebec Values from a new group of advocates of secularism, who say debate so far has been dominated too much by opponents of the PQ proposals.

The newly formed Rassemblement pour la laïcité supports the ban on religious headgear for public employees, and argues state neutrality should be conveyed through the people who work for the government.

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The PQ has faced a storm of criticism since it unveiled proposals, unique in North America, that would require employees working in schools, daycares, hospitals and government offices to remove conspicuous religious symbols. These include headscarves, kippas, turbans and visible crucifixes.

Organizers of the new pro-Charter coalition say they felt the media has given too much space to critics of the measures and not enough to proponents.

The pro-Charter coalition put former Supreme Court justice Claire L'Heureux-Dubé on its list of supporters. However, the retired judge did not attend the launch on Tuesday morning.

Backers of the Charter say the State must be secular and “the neutrality of the State expresses itself by the neutrality of the image given by its representatives and agents.”

They say the push for secularism should extend to removing the crucifix from the legislative room in the National Assembly, where it hangs over the speaker’s chair, and placing it elsewhere in the parliamentary building. The PQ says it wants the crucifix to remain where it is, in the name of Quebec’s Catholic heritage.

Supporters of the pro-Charter group include sociologist Guy Rocher, writer and filmmaker Jacques Godbout, former Quebec nurses’ union president Gyslaine Desrosiers, and former student leader Martine Desjardins.

The group also included members of the Muslim community who spoke out against the wearing of headscarves. Leila Bensalem, a Montreal teacher, said fundamentalists in repressive regimes impose headscarves on women, and some women came to Quebec so they could live in a secular society. Ms. Bensalem said Muslim headscarves are not “an innocent piece of cloth.”