Quebec's controversial bill that would ban women from wearing the niqab in certain public institutions sparked a debate on Tuesday over religious rights, with the mayor of Saguenay calling for a complete ban on the veil.
Mayor Jean Tremblay - a staunch Catholic who is also fighting to open Saguenay council meetings with a Christian prayer - says the proposed ban is insufficient.
"The bill doesn't go far enough. It should be banned everywhere," Mr. Tremblay said before a National Assembly committee examining the proposed legislation. "If it was only up to me, I would have done it a long time ago. It would have been a formal law that would bar people in Quebec from covering their faces."
The mayor's position differed from that of the Quebec Bar Association, which argued that women should have the right to wear the niqab when receiving government services if they don't need to show their faces for security or identification purposes.
For instance, it is reasonable to demand that women show their faces when getting a driver's licence, but not when being served in a tourist information centre, bar association president Pierre Chagnon told reporters.
The Quebec Bar Association concluded that the bill is in step with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and should have no impact on religious rights.
"I think it is a good bill because it ... [gives]more tools to the administrators ... to determine under what conditions a special accommodation should be given," Mr. Chagnon said.
The proposed law should only be restrictive when involving "security, communication or identification"; in those cases, he said, the "accommodation must be denied."
The measures were proposed after a recent decision by a Montreal learning institution that barred a Muslim woman from attending French-language classes after refusing her request to wear the niqab.
When the bill was tabled last March, the Quebec government wanted to set guidelines for wearing the niqab while avoiding a debate over religious rights.
For many gender-equality activists in Quebec, the niqab remains a symbol of the exploitation of women and their submission to men. The bill sets the tone for the government's new guidelines for accommodating minority groups.
The bill continued to be criticized by opposition parties, who argued that the government failed to address key issues involving religious symbols and government neutrality with respect to religions. They said the changes should be supported by amendments to the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms that would include a tougher stand on the niqab.