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Canada Montreal council adversaries unite to oppose religious symbols ban

Political adversaries at Montreal City Hall have joined forces in a rare show of unity against Quebec’s plan to ban the wearing of religious symbols in certain public-service functions.

Mayor Valérie Plante and members of her administration joined opposition members Monday in passing a unanimous resolution that says the municipal government is already secular, and the city is already a model of cultural integration and harmony and does not need a provincial dress code that will chip away at individual liberty.

Opposition leader Lionel Perez, who wears a kippa, choked back tears as he stated his support for the motion and thanked Ms. Plante for joining his proposal to oppose the province’s Bill 21.

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“I was born in Montreal from immigrant parents who chose Quebec because it is open, because of the French language and the promise of a better future,” he said. “I’m as much a Quebecker – we are as much Quebeckers – as anyone, whether I wear a kippa or a veil or not. My kippa is not an affront to secularism. It’s evidence of openness.”

Premier François Legault often says there is a consensus in Quebec to ban religious symbols for new hires in “positions of authority,” including police and teachers, but the unity he sees has taken a beating in recent weeks.

Mr. Perez said City Hall’s motion shows no consensus is possible on a law that would harm individual minority rights for people whose religious beliefs have never been an issue. The government has provided no evidence that religious people are less capable of performing their jobs, he said.

“When the rights and liberties of Montrealers are under threat, it’s our duty to intervene,” Mr. Perez said. “We are united today, to reaffirm our vision of an open secularism that respects individual religious rights.

“The sad irony is this bill targets Montreal and Montreal doesn’t need it.”

While public opinion polling before Mr. Legault’s government introduced the law showed majority support for the idea, resistance is mounting in Montreal. Several small protests have taken place in the past two weeks, public institutions have taken positions against the bill and some school boards have said they will ignore the law if it passes in its current form.

The heat of the rhetoric surrounding Bill 21 has increased rapidly in the two weeks since its introduction. Most of the province’s politicians and pundits spent much of the past week demanding an apology from the mayor of the small Montreal island municipality of Hampstead, William Steinberg, who described the dress code as peaceful ethnic cleansing. He refused to apologize.

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Ms. Plante said such talk is not helpful. “Let’s not forget this debate involves real people and must be done from a place of respect – and not overreaction,” she said.

She said such hyperbole can partly be explained by the province’s plan to invoke the notwithstanding clause to protect the law from most avenues of legal challenge. “The notwithstanding clause is causing much of the discontent and worry,” she said. “Before we can even discuss the issue, we’re closing off the possibility of getting to the heart of the issue.”

Ms. Plante said her administration is unlikely to engage in civil disobedience. Besides, she said, a legislative committee will examine the bill in May and she said she is hopeful the government will show some flexibility. But she urged the Premier to reconsider the reach of his plan.

Mr. Legault has repeatedly urged people to debate the law respectfully. “I was happy to hear the mayor is going to follow the law even if she disagrees,” he said before City Hall passed its motion.

He said he wants to pass the law by the summer and will invoke closure if necessary.

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