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Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard announces his candidacy for the by-election in Outremont riding at a news conference on Nov. 6, 2013. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)
Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard announces his candidacy for the by-election in Outremont riding at a news conference on Nov. 6, 2013. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Quebec Liberal Leader gets a clear path to legislature as secular-charter debate escalates Add to ...

Philippe Couillard’s main opponents won’t be running candidates against him, paving the way for the Liberal Leader to enter the National Assembly in the midst of a heated debate over a ban on religious symbols.

On Wednesday, Premier Pauline Marois called two by-elections for Dec. 9, both in Liberal strongholds in Montreal, on the eve of tabling the controversial secular charter bill that Mr. Couillard said he will fight tooth and nail.

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“The Quebec Human Rights Commission described this project as an unprecedented attack against the rights and freedoms of Quebeckers. This is a major concern. And we will be there to defend those freedoms,” Mr. Couillard said in a news conference where he announced his decision to run in the Outremont by-election.

The controversial bill aimed at banning “overt” religious symbols in the public sector will no longer be tagged the “Charter of Quebec Values” but rather bear the long-winded title of “Charter affirming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests.”

“Lawyers like long titles that sum up everything that is in a bill,” said Minister of Democratic Institutions Bernard Drainville, in explaining the reason for the change.

While the title may be different, the contents of the bill are expected to mirror what the government proposed last September as it tries to solve what it described as the “crisis” of religious accommodations that has fuelled debate over minority rights.

The bill is expected to include a ban on public-service employees, such as teachers, hospital workers and municipal employees, from wearing Muslim head scarves, Sikh turbans, Jewish kippas and other explicit religious symbols.

However, the government was expected put to a vote a motion on whether to maintain the crucifix in the National Assembly rather than include it in the bill.

Mr. Couillard will be absent from the legislature for the intense debate over the bill this fall as he runs a campaign in Outremont that he should easily clinch.

Both the Parti Québécois and the Coalition Avenir Québec are abstaining from running candidates in Outremont to hand Mr. Couillard an easy victory so that he can to take his seat in the National Assembly and fully assume his role as Official Opposition Leader.

Ms. Marois and CAQ Leader François Legault said they are looking forward to locking horns with Mr. Couillard in debates. Both accuse Mr. Couillard of abandoning the fight for Quebec’s identity by adopting an intransigent position on the secular charter.

Mr. Legault, who opposes the PQ’s sweeping ban of “overt” religious symbols in the public sector argued that if Ms. Marois’s minority government is serious about getting the bill adopted, it should negotiate compromises with his party.

“We have said that religious symbols should be banned only for those who hold a position of authority … We are willing to discuss who those persons should be … Because the real question is to whom do you impose the ban,” Mr. Legault said.

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