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Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard speaks at the National Assembly on Sept. 18, 2013. (JACQUES BOISSINOT/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard speaks at the National Assembly on Sept. 18, 2013. (JACQUES BOISSINOT/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Quebec bar association lambastes secular charter as Liberals call for answers Add to ...

Quebec’s Liberal opposition is calling on the Justice Minister to release the legal opinions completed on the secular charter after the province’s bar association strongly criticized the bill, saying it violated Canada and Quebec’s charters of rights.

“On the basic issue regarding the legality [of the secular charter bill] … it’s clear and unequivocal that the bar is saying that this piece of legislation is illegal,” said Liberal justice critic Gilles Ouimet.

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In a brief to be presented before a National Assembly committee next month, the Quebec Bar Association will argue that if Bill 60 is adopted, the courts will likely reverse the proposed ban on overt religious symbols by public-sector employees, as well as the guidelines for accommodation of religious demands.

“The enforcement of general prohibitions provided in Bill 60 regarding the wearing of religious symbols and reasonable accommodation … would be difficult to reconcile with the certain fundamental freedoms protected by the Quebec Charter and Canadian Charter [of Rights and Freedoms],” the bar association wrote in its brief.

The association argued that the government failed to provide any evidence of an urgent and real need to restrict freedom of religion. The 34-page brief also criticizes the title of the bill, saying it is “inappropriate” to call secularism one of the “values” of Quebec society.

The bar association reminded the government that it has an obligation to abide by the international treaties that protects freedom of religion.

“The religious neutrality of the state is not an objective that should be achieved at the expense of the freedom of conscience and of religion. On the contrary, state neutrality promotes the harmonious manifestation of individual beliefs and conscience,” the bar association argued.

The association’s position was similar to the one originally defended by the Quebec Liberal Party. Party Leader Philippe Couillard has since changed positions several times on the question of banning religious symbols.

For instance, the Liberals first supported banning the chador, a full-body robe that covers all but the face. Now Liberals say the ban would only apply to teachers and daycare workers, leaving other workplaces to deal with the chador on a case-by-case basis, according to guidelines the party has yet to define.

The Liberals will adopt their official position on the proposed ban of religious symbols in the PQ secular-charter bill when Mr. Couillard meets with his caucus at the end of the month.

It will be unveiled as a National Assembly committee continues to hear more than 250 briefs. Hearings are expected to last over 200 hours, well into the spring session. The possibility of an election call would put an end to the hearings as the minority PQ government gauges its chances over the next few weeks of winning a majority.

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