The Harper government is willing to lead the legal fight against the Quebec Charter of Values if the Parti Québécois's proposal to restrict religious symbols in the provincial government are adopted by the National Assembly.
Setting up a battle with the minority Marois government in Quebec City, the Conservatives are stating that the new proposals are worrying and must be challenged if they are deemed unconstitutional when they are formally adopted. The matter will be referred to the department of Justice if the bill is passed, and a legal challenge would likely ensue.
"We would challenge any law that we deem unconstitutional, that violates the fundamental constitutional guarantees to freedom of religion," Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney told reporters in Ottawa. "Freedom of religion is a fundamental, universal value inscribed in our own Constitution, and this government will defend it vigorously."
Mr. Kenney said he is "very concerned about proposal that would discriminate unfairly against people based on their religion, based on their deepest convictions."
"At the federal level, we believe our job is to make all people who live in this country, regardless of their religious, ethnic or cultural background, feel welcomed, feel part of our country, feel like this is a land of equality, of opportunity, and feel at home as proud Canadians," Mr. Kenney said.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, whose party owes its standing as Official Opposition to the support it received from Quebeckers in the last federal election, said there was unanimous agreement among his MPs that the proposal from the Quebec government needs to be challenged as a violation of human rights.
The plan to prevent members of the Quebec civil service from wearing religious symbols is nothing more than an effort to tap a "hot button issue" and to provoke an emotional reaction, he told reporters after emerging from the morning session of a caucus retreat with his MPs in Saskatoon.
"What we saw today went beyond anything that anyone had imagined. To say that a woman who worked in a daycare centre is going to lose her job if she is wearing a headscarf is simply unbelievable," said Mr. Mulcair.
Study after study has shown there is systemic discrimination against minorities in the Quebec civil service, said the NDP Leader, who is a former Quebec provincial politician and a former bureaucrat in that province. "So what we have today," he said, is an attempt to impose state-mandated discrimination against minorities in the Quebec civil service."
Polls have suggested that the measure announced by the PQ is popular in Quebec. If that proves to be the case, it may be a politically difficult road ahead for Mr. Mulcair who needs to retain Quebec support to make gains in the next election – or even hold on to what he has got. But he said that will not be factored into his thinking.
"If polls are telling you that most Quebeckers now actually would agree with some of these restrictions, I would submit to you that any of those polls done after this text had been released might show something different," said Mr. Mulcair. "But, you know what? Even if they if they didn't show something different, I won't change my position."
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who has already condemned the PQ proposal, is expected to offer his reaction at an event in Montreal on Tuesday afternoon.
The decision to oppose the changes being floated by the PQ government could pose some difficulties for Mr. Mulcair, who is the leader of a caucus that is now largely based in Quebec. Polls in Quebec suggest that a majority of the residents of that province support what the PQ is trying to do. By standing firm against Ms. Marois, Mr. Mulcair risks alienating voter support and creating rifts within his own party where some of his Quebec MPs have historic loyalties to the separatist provincial party.