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Quebec Minister of Immigration, Diversity and Inclusiveness Simon Jolin-Barrette pauses for lunch on the first day of a legislature committee studying a bill on secularism, on Tuesday, May 7, 2019 at the legislature in Quebec City, Que.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

The Quebec government has launched hearings into its controversial bill to ban the wearing of religious symbols for public servants by showcasing feminist and nationalist groups whose main criticism of the legislation is that it isn’t restrictive enough.

With the Coalition Avenir Québec government intent on passing its divisive bill by next month, it kicked off legislative hearings on Tuesday by handing the floor to groups in favour of it. And the government got what it wanted.

“Religion doesn’t belong in classrooms. It’s not the message we should send [to] students in secular schools,” said Louise Mailloux, speaking for a group called Collectif citoyen pour l'égalité et la laïcité.

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The comments channel an intellectual current in Quebec that believes state institutions should be secular and that the rules should extend to representatives of the state. The view dovetails with some feminist thinking that sees the hijab, the Muslim headscarf, as a symbol of oppression.

While Bill 21 targets all religious symbols – turbans, kippas and crucifixes – several comments in the committee room made it clear that attention is fixated on the hijab. The ban would apply to teachers, judges, prosecutors and other authority figures.

“We shouldn’t send the message to young people that women should cover their hair, ears and neck and be more modest than men,” Ms. Mailloux said. “Forty years ago, we took out all references to sexism in school textbooks. And now, we should have to accept a sexist symbol for teachers? Mr. Minister, it’s time to act.”

Djemila Benhabib, an outspoken author who has described the hijab as a symbol of domination, said Bill 21 promotes gender equality.

“How can we accept sexist symbols in a school whose mission is to vehicle equality between women and men?” she said. “Contrary to what the detractors of Bill 21 say, there is no right to religious exhibitionism in the civil service.”

She qualified women who refuse to remove their hijab while working for the state as “fundamentalists.”

The group’s only gripe about the bill was that the government should have extended its restrictions to private-school teachers and daycare workers.

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Later, a Quebec nationalist group said the government shouldn’t have offered acquired rights to teachers who already wear religious symbols.

The CAQ legislation has unleashed a torrent of opposition from the federal government, legal experts, human-rights groups and others, who say the law violates religious freedoms and curtails career opportunities for minorities, especially women.

The government of Premier François Legault has said it could limit debate to get the law adopted before the National Assembly rises for the summer next month. It also plans to invoke the notwithstanding clause to pre-empt a court challenge.

While the government gave prime-time slots on Tuesday to the bill’s boosters, detractors were scheduled for later in the day. The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs said in its brief that the provincial government was poised to suspend fundamental rights without demonstrating that it was responding to “any real and urgent social need.” The group said it feared the law would lead to abuses and arbitrary decisions in institutions where it would be applied.

The Quebec Human Rights Commission said in its brief that the province’s continuous debates about religious minorities over the past decade have worsened the social climate. The commission said the ban threatened to discriminate against minorities “who are, in some cases, already victims of prejudice and exclusion.”

Charles Taylor, who co-authored the report that began Quebec’s long and roiling debate on the place of religion in the public sphere, said the proposed law could alienate religious minorities and encourage anti-Muslim sentiment, which he called “dangerous.”

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Several religious minority groups who would feel the brunt of the law said their requests to appear at the hearings had been ignored.

The government made clear on Tuesday that it would not change the fundamentals of the law, including the religious symbol ban for teachers. Simon Jolin-Barrette, the minister who sponsored the law, insisted Quebec would go its own way on the matter of secularism.

“Quebec is distinct from Canada and the rest of North America,” said Mr. Jolin-Barrette, the Minister of Immigration, Diversity and Inclusiveness. “Bill 21 establishes a typically Quebec model of secularism that defines the relationship between the state and religion.”

He defended his government’s decision to use the notwithstanding clause. “The National Assembly rather than the courts is the appropriate place to make a societal choice as fundamental as the secularism of the state.”

The government has scheduled six days of hearings.

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