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secularism and religion

A woman wears a niqab in Montreal in 2013. The Quebec legislature on Wednesday barred people who are wearing face coverings from receiving public services or working in government jobs, a move opponents criticized for unfairly targeting Muslims.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Quebec's new law forcing women to unveil before getting public services is meeting with confusion, street protests and resistance from civic leaders, exposing the divisive impact of legislating on matters of faith and human rights in Canada.

Bill 62 became law on Wednesday, but the largest cities and transit authorities say they will not yet put it into effect. The legislation requires people receiving public services in Quebec – on buses, in a hospital, in daycares or in libraries – to show their faces, a rule that effectively singles out Muslim women who wear the face-covering niqab and burka.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took aim at Bill 62 on Friday while campaigning ahead of a federal by-election in Quebec, although he stopped short of saying Ottawa would challenge the law's constitutionality in court.

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"I don't think it should be the government's business to tell a woman what she should or shouldn't be wearing," he said. "I will always stand up for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is what Canadians expect of me."

He said Ottawa would look "carefully at the implications of this law and how we continue to stand up for Canadians' rights."

Bill 62 also prompted its first street demonstration in Montreal on Friday, with protesters lining up at bus stops wearing scarves and face masks to denounce the idea that women in niqabs could be prevented from getting on public transit.

Municipal leaders have largely led the charge against the legislation, which requires those giving and receiving public services to have their faces uncovered. The leading candidates for mayor of Montreal in next month's civic election, Denis Coderre and Valérie Plante, have both voiced disagreement with it. On Friday, the Union of Quebec Municipalities, which represents most of the province's cities, called the law "inapplicable."

"Our priorities for co-habitation are completely elsewhere," said Bernard Sévigny, president of the group and mayor of Sherbrooke, Que., said. "We want to find solutions for a better integration of immigrants, better management of diversity and greater inclusion."

It is unclear how the law would be implemented or enforced. Quebec says it will draw up guidelines for granting exemptions on religious grounds by late June next year, leading to questions about how much impact it will actually have.

Some civic authorities say matters will remain in limbo until the the guidelines are established. Mr. Sévigny said in a statement that cities run a wide variety of services, from culture to sports and day camps, and applying the law would put their employees "in an untenable position."

The Société de transport de l'Outaouais, which is based on the Quebec side of the National Capital Region, offered a glimpse of the challenges in applying the law. The transit service drops off and picks up customers in Ottawa, leaving open the question of whether a woman in a niqab would have to remove it in Quebec and could put it back on in Ontario. A spokeswoman said the transport service is seeking clarification from the province.

The law is widely perceived as an effort by the governing Liberals to show they are tackling identity issues before an election next fall. The law's punitive measures are unclear.

A spokeswoman for Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée said in an e-mail on Friday that the government expects public bodies to enforce the law, and failure to do so will lead to "appropriate measures to ensure its application." However, Ms. Vallée was quoted in Le Devoir as saying "there are no criminal law provisions in the law." Legislation usually outlines penalties for violation.

"The [Justice] Minister has suggested the law could be violated by anyone," Benoît Pelletier, a former Quebec Liberal minister and a law professor at the University of Ottawa, said in an interview. "Is the law just an empty promise? Is it symbolic? Or will it really have coercive power? These are questions I'm asking myself."

Bill 62, which has made headlines around the world, is not only provoking unease among municipalities. The legislation is considered to be the Liberal government's answer to the Bouchard-Taylor report, which was the result of public hearings in 2007 on the accommodation of religious minorities in a predominantly secular province.

Yet both co-chairs – academics Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor – on Friday said the law was off base. Mr. Taylor said forcing a woman to remove her face veil should be reserved for exceptional situations such as voting or getting a driver's licence.

"You don't have to celebrate the burqa or niqab to think that a law that would have the effect of discouraging women from using public transit would be both repressive and counterproductive," he said in an open letter.

Ms. Vallée defended the law on Friday. "Québec does not want to stigmatize or marginalize anyone," she said in a letter to several media outlets. "On the contrary, its goal is to introduce rules to ensure the quality of communications between individuals, to allow a person's identity to be verified, and to guarantee security for all in the delivery of public services. These are all key objectives in a free and democratic society."

Meanwhile, a woman who wears the niqab said the law has stirred concerns for her safety. Warda Naili, 33, was born in Quebec and converted to Islam from Catholicism. She says she should not be paying the price for Quebec's drive for state religious neutrality.

"I'm a full-fledged citizen," she said. "I don't have to adapt to my society and integrate. This is my home." She has worn the niqab since 2011, before she met her Algerian-born husband. Her husband is so concerned for her safety that he has asked her to remove it, something she refuses to do.

"I don't want hate to win," she said.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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