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More than 80 years after it went up, the crucifix at Montreal City Hall is coming down – a gesture that adds fuel to a raging debate in Quebec over the place of religious symbols in public institutions.

Montreal says it will remove the crucifix from the wall of its council chambers while City Hall undergoes renovations and will not put it back when the work is done in three years.

“It’s a very important symbol, but I truly believe … that it doesn’t have to be in the city council, which is a secular institution,” Mayor Valérie Plante said. “This is a place where we make decisions.”

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The move comes in the midst of an emotional discussion in Quebec about limits on religious symbols for public servants. The provincial government of François Legault is promising legislation this spring that would ban people in positions of authority – such as police officers and schoolteachers – from wearing symbols of faith such as hijabs.

The government says it is acting in the name of state religious neutrality – but has refused to remove the large crucifix over the speaker’s chair in the National Assembly.

Montreal’s decision is likely to put pressure on the province to follow suit. Mr. Legault is facing criticism that his government’s ban on religious symbols targets minorities, in particular Muslim women who wear headscarves.

“Instead of attacking teachers in its new secularism law, the Legault government should take inspiration from the city of Montreal and withdraw the crucifix that hangs in the Salon Bleu of the National Assembly. That is how you advance secularism in Quebec,” tweeted Andrés Fontecilla, an MNA with Québec Solidaire.

The city’s move further accentuates the division between Quebec’s largest metropolis and the rest of the province on matters of diversity. The city, which largely shunned Mr. Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec party in last fall’s provincial election, is home to the overwhelming number of immigrants to Quebec.

The crucifix in Montreal’s council chambers was put up in 1937 at the request of an alderman who said it was meant to remind elected officials of their oaths before God. The chaplain of city firefighters and police officers blessed it after it was affixed to the wall.

“I think everyone agrees today that we are in a different context,” said Montreal Councillor Laurence Lavigne Lalonde, who is responsible for the file on the executive committee. “We live in a society that has evolved and that is represented by democratic institutions that must be secular, neutral and open.”

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The mayor says the city has no intention of removing the 33-metre-high cross that looms over Montreal from its perch atop Mount Royal. “It’s not a democratic institution where we make decisions,” Ms. Plante said of the iconic mountain.

The crucifix at City Hall will be placed in a new museum-like display area open to the public.

Not everyone at city hall was happy with the decision. Municipal opposition leader Lionel Perez, who wears a kippah – a Jewish head covering – said the decision could sow division and that the city should have held public consultations. He called the crucifix “an important symbol of a founding people of Montreal.”

Still, Montreal’s move is likely to highlight the contradiction of restricting what public servants can wear while permitting an overt religious symbol in public institutions. In addition to the crucifix at the provincial legislature, there are reportedly numerous crucifixes in courtrooms around the province, and the Quebec government has given no indication that it plans to remove those either. That means a judge could be prohibited from wearing a kippah, turban or hijab, but could preside over a trial beneath a cross.

According to La Presse, Mr. Legault’s government plans to allow public servants to keep wearing their religious symbols but restrict such displays of faith among future employees. The government also plans to invoke the notwithstanding clause to override both the Quebec and Canadian charters of rights and freedoms, according to the report.

The government is showing openness to Montreal’s move. The Premier said he respects the city’s decision and indicated the province might soften its stand on the matter. “People have to make compromises. We will look at the positions of different people in caucus and we’ll get back to you,” he told reporters.

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The history of the crucifix at the National Assembly underscores Quebeckers’ complex relationship with Roman Catholicism. Residents of the province have largely abandoned religious observance, but seem to remain culturally attached to the faith.

In fact, Ms. Plante took the trouble of informing Montreal Archbishop Christian Lépine of the city’s decision before announcing it to the public. In a statement, Archbishop Lépine said the decision belonged to elected officials.

“[The crucifix] symbolizes openness and respect toward all peoples, including toward other faith communities and religious traditions,” he said in a statement. “Nothing forbids us, and our respective beliefs, from being present in the public space in an attitude of respect and openness, since we share the same common humanity.”

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