The Parti Québécois is pushing the private sector to adopt its proposed charter of values as a model to create a more secular workplace.
The charter, which would regulate religious-based clothing for public employees, has been met with mixed reactions, including concerns in the private sector that it sends a negative signal to would-be immigrants. Employers also fear it could lead to complex legal quarrels over the right of religious minorities to their own food, prayer sites and holiday schedules on the job.
In an interview, the lead PQ minister on the charter issue, Bernard Drainville, said he believes an ongoing debate over demands for religious accommodations has created frustrations and tensions in Quebec. He said the charter proposes guidelines to help various organizations determine whether they need to adapt to the demands of religious groups. In order to do so, the charter offers criteria by which to evaluate a request by considering such matters as the existence of discrimination and the costs and safety issues associated with an accommodation.
"The guidelines that we are putting in place will allow for an evaluation of all requests for religious accommodations," Mr. Drainville said. "It will be up to businesses, departments, agencies, organizations to apply them and to decide whether the requested accommodation is reasonable or not."
The government will not impose the process on the private sector, but Mr. Drainville said it will be hard to ignore.
"These are only guidelines, but by putting them in the charter, we are sending a clear signal to society. What we are saying is, 'Here is a framework by which people can govern themselves,' " he said.
But Michel Leblanc, who heads the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal, raised doubts about the need for such guidelines in the private sector. "We have not received any signal in the past from private-sector employees that they want this," he said in an interview.
Still, Yves-Thomas Dorval, president of the Quebec Employers Council, said smaller companies with fewer human-resources personnel might welcome the parameters. But he added that the existence of the guidelines could create a growing number of requests for accommodation.
"This may lead to more demands and more legal challenges when the employees are unsatisfied with the way their employers handled them," he said. "This could become a headache."
Mr. Drainville sounded exasperated at times as he defended the government's plan, which has led to accusations that the PQ government is promoting a discriminatory and divisive approach to immigration.
"The choice that we are making is not against anyone. It's a choice for all of Quebec society, for everyone, for all Quebeckers. It's the choice of religious neutrality," he said, defending the ban on conspicuous religious symbols among government employees. "Working for the state is not a right, it is a choice that comes with certain responsibilities."
He added that the government's critics are overdramatizing the consequences of the charter, saying that Quebec is in line with the rules that have already been accepted in a number of other Western democracies, including France, Belgium and Switzerland.
"Quebeckers have the right to decide the type of religious neutrality that they want. I mean, can we have a respectful discussion without constantly having these rhetorical hyperboles?" Mr. Drainville said. "This is not a step backward. The best way to guarantee religious freedom is for the state to have no religion, to respect all citizens whether or not they have religious convictions, to respect all religions equally."
He also defended the government from critics who feel that the secularism proposed by the PQ should go further, and include bringing down the crucifix in the National Assembly.
"I have the conviction that for a majority of Quebeckers, when they look at it, they don't see a religious symbol, they see a symbol of the past, of our history, and we have decided to respect that," Mr. Drainville said.