Quebec is heading into another fierce debate over the future of religious freedom in the province with the Parti Québécois government set to release a Charter of Quebec Values that could ban religious headwear everywhere from daycares to hospitals.
On Tuesday, a news report suggested that the minority government of Premier Pauline Marois wants to prohibit public employees from wearing items such as hijabs, turbans and kippas, in a broad ban that could extend from elementary and university teachers to nurses and child-care workers.
The minister responsible for the values charter, Bernard Drainville, would not comment on the report, published in the Journal de Montréal and the Journal de Québec. However, no one from the Marois government disavowed it.
The PQ is expected to table new rules in the fall, part of a set of proposals by the government to enshrine the secular character of the province into law.
The measures come as Quebec faces renewed debate over the accommodation of religious minorities in the province. The province made headlines worldwide this summer after the Quebec Soccer Federation, with Ms. Marois’s blessing, banned Sikh turbans on soccer pitches; the ban was repealed under national pressure. And Mr. Drainville condemned long-standing parking exemptions for observant Jews during religious holidays in Montreal, saying “we cannot start saying we are going to change the highway code and the parking signs according to different religions.”
But the PQ’s supposed remedy to such cases, as outlined in the Journal de Montréal, suggests that the Marois government can expect significant blowback on the issue. Critics called the reported proposals divisive, draconian, and even reminiscent of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Human-rights lawyer Julius Grey, who has fought numerous constitutional cases, says the rules would likely fail a challenge under freedom-of-religion provisions in the Canadian Charter of Rights. Because Quebec’s new rules would reportedly exempt private schools, the proposals risk driving minorities into separate, religious-based schools, he said.
Mr. Grey also said such “values” rules were more typical of the political right than of a party like the PQ that sees itself as progressive. “A charter of values smacks of the [U.S.] Tea Party,” Mr. Grey said.
According to the media report, the new charter would also apply to the private sector by amending the Quebec Charter of Human Rights to include the principle of equality between men and women. Some institutions, however, could reportedly seek exemptions to the rules.
Ms. Marois campaigned heavily on identity issues in last year’s election campaign and her government has already promised a ban on overt religious symbols among civil servants; opinion polls have shown Quebeckers support limits on displays of religion in the public sphere.
However, the reported proposals are running into political headwinds.
The head of the left-leaning Québec Solidaire, Françoise David, said the measures could set off situations where a male Muslim teacher with a beard could teach, but his headscarf-wearing wife could not. The ban would also cover ostentatious crucifixes.
“There are people who wear the crucifix. Are we going to start to measure the size of crucifixes?” Ms. David asked.
The PQ has said it would allow the prominent crucifix in the National Assembly to remain over the Speaker’s chair, since it is an artifact of Quebec’s heritage.
Charles Taylor, a prominent intellectual and co-chair of a high-profile commission that studied the issue of religious accommodation in Quebec in 2007, compared the reported proposals to Russia’s restrictions on gays. He called them “Putinesque.”
While Quebec institutions must remain neutral, state employees should be free to express their religious convictions, he said Tuesday.
“Hydro-Québec isn’t Hydro-Catholic, Hydro-Muslim, Hydro-Atheist,” he told the TVA network. But “employees are individuals … they are free.” He called the reported proposals “absolutely draconian” and said they would create obstacles to immigrants’ integration in Quebec.
Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard called the measures a trial balloon, and is on record as saying he will oppose a new charter if the rules end up being divisive. “If the sought-after goal is a strategy to divide Quebeckers, foment the idea that Quebec is under siege and at risk, we’re not there,” he told the Presse Canadienne this month.