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Maha Kassef, a 35-year-old teacher who wears a hijab, is replacing another teacher on sick leave at a Montreal elementary school. She worries what would happen if she shifts jobs or boards.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

The co-author of a seminal report on religious accommodations in Quebec says the government’s new secularism bill is an “awful, deplorable” piece of legislation that will “poison the atmosphere” in the province.

Charles Taylor, a philosopher at McGill University in Montreal, joined his voice to a chorus of criticism against the proposed law, which would bar authority figures from wearing hijabs, skullcaps, turbans and other displays of faith.

While the legislation appears to have popular support, opposition is already fierce. Among those staking positions against it are Amnesty International, women’s groups, teachers’ unions, Muslim organizations, the mayor of Montreal, civil liberties associations and interfaith coalitions.

Mr. Taylor’s 2007 report with sociologist Gérard Bouchard served as the justification for Quebec’s decision to push ahead with its restrictions on religious symbols. But the legislation tabled Thursday went further than the Bouchard-Taylor recommendations, extending the restrictions to teachers.

Mr. Taylor has withdrawn his support for limits on displays of religious symbols for figures of authority. In an interview on Friday, Mr. Taylor called the initiative by the government of François Legault “a gross kind of opportunistic electoralism.”

He said the legislation by the Coalition Avenir Québec comes amid growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the West. “The climate makes it profitable for parties like the CAQ to surf on that kind of sentiment by promising to restrict certain classes of people in their jobs,” he said. “So it’s a very lamentable thing to do, because you’re not just surfing on it but strengthening it, and it produces all sorts of terrible effects.”

Mr. Legault’s government said it introduced the legislation to put an end to more than a decade of acrimonious debate in Quebec on displays of religious faith within a secular state. However, the instantaneous backlash indicates the issue remains deeply divisive. One institution, the English Montreal School Board, says it would simply refuse to apply the law.

Among the main criticisms is the government’s inclusion of the notwithstanding clause, which would pre-empt court challenges and override Charter protections of fundamental rights. On Friday, the minister responsible for the file, Simon Jolin-Barrette, defended the use of the controversial clause.

“We want it to be up to the National Assembly, through its elected representatives, to choose the model of society we want,” he told radio station 98.5 FM. “In Quebec, for 50 years, we’re saying we are separating the state from religion.”

If it isn’t challenged before Canadian courts, some say the law could end up before the United Nations Human Rights Committee. Amnesty International on Friday said the bill violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its guarantees of freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

“By renouncing our international commitments, we’re undermining our international credibility,” said France-Isabelle Langlois, director of the group for French-speaking Canada. “States cannot by and large force people to dress or not dress in a particular way.”

Bill 21 is also coming under attack for sabotaging the career dreams of aspiring teachers, police officers, prosecutors and others who wear religious headgear.

The bill grants acquired rights to employees who already wear religious symbols. However, they lose that protection if they change jobs or move to another school board.

Maha Kassef, a 35-year-old teacher who wears a hijab, is replacing another teacher on sick leave at a Montreal elementary school. She worries what would happen if she shifts jobs or boards.

“What if I want to be a guidance counsellor? Or a principal? They’re telling me I can’t have career advancement if I wear a religious symbol,” she said. “I’m being told: ‘You’ve paid your taxes, you’ve paid your dues, but we don’t want you here any more’ because apparently what I have on my head is more important than what I am as a person and what I give to society.”

The legislation also sends a message to future teachers who wear headscarves, she said.

“It tells them, ‘You can’t dream, you can’t become what you want to be in life,' and it sends a message that you have to choose between your identity and what you love in life.”

Asma and Assia, third-year education students who were on their way to class at the University of Quebec in Montreal this week, said they would reluctantly consider leaving Quebec if they couldn’t get jobs in the province. Both wear the hijab.

“I’ve only got one year left in my studies. I can’t believe people will want me to have done my studies for nothing,” Asma said. Like Assia, her last name was not used to avoid harming her future job prospects. Both immigrated to Quebec from Algeria and began wearing headscarves as teenagers. Both said they consider the head coverings part of their identities and they would not remove them, even if it barred them from working in Quebec.

Both women, who are 23 years old, have done teaching internships with elementary school children. They say they never discuss their religion in class, and the children have never asked them about their headscarves.

Other women pointed out the discriminatory nature of the law. Shauna Fine, a public-school teacher in Montreal, wears a Star of David pendant around her neck. She can hide the Jewish symbol inside her shirt, where it is not visible. Quebec’s proposed law would forbid wearing all religious symbols, visible or not, but the government says employees will not be strip searched.

Ms. Fine says the distinction gives her an advantage over observant Muslim women, whose headscarves cannot be hidden.

“I fear for my Muslim colleagues,” Ms. Fine said. “They’re clearly targeted. This law is targeting a group of minority women.” Ms. Fine has taken to displaying her Star of David in recent weeks to protest the government’s plans, and a Christian colleague has started to do the same thing with a crucifix.

“I’m pretty secular,” Ms. Fine said. “But you don’t appreciate your rights until somebody tries to take them away.”

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