Quebec's secular charter will ban government workers from wearing visible religious symbols on the job, while creating exemptions that will aim to ease the passage of the controversial proposal, The Globe and Mail has learned.
Premier Pauline Marois was roundly criticized last week as she tried to sell the Charter of Quebec Values, to be rolled out Tuesday, by blasting multiculturalism and suggesting a link to homegrown terrorism in England.
Although she distanced herself from the comment over the weekend, Ms. Marois and the Parti Québecois are not backing away from plans to promote secularism and religious neutrality in public institutions.
However, in an attempt to demonstrate "flexibility," the PQ is planning to provide a five-year exemption clause for municipalities, hospitals and postsecondary institutions that wish to allow their employees to continue wearing religious symbols on the job, a provincial official told The Globe.
"We want to show some flexibility," the government official said.
"If they need more time to transition toward greater neutrality, we can understand and be flexible."
The PQ, though, will not allow any exemptions for workers in subsidized daycare facilities and the province's primary and secondary schools, to ensure that children are not placed in the presence of religious symbols by government workers.
"We don't want children exposed to religious influences in the public sphere. That is a choice that belongs to parents," the official said.
The government source added that the rules will not prevent government workers from wearing a pendant or earrings with a small cross, a Star of David or a star and crescent, "as long as it is worn discreetly."
The minority government plans to legislate restrictions that will prevent civil servants, judges, police officers and prison workers from wearing kippas, turbans, hijabs and other highly visible religious symbols at work.
The main proposals will only target government workers, and not those receiving government services. However, the PQ wants to enact new rules stating that no one will be able to receive government services – including taking an exam in a university, for example – with their faces covered by a niqab or a burka.
Still, a number of institutions will benefit from a transition period to enact key elements of the charter. The "exemption clause" is expected to be invoked especially in the greater Montreal area, where hospitals, universities, colleges and municipalities have a more multiethnic work force.
The exemption clause will have to be invoked by the relevant institutions' board of directors and will be renewable. Still, the government will monitor the situation to ensure that it will still reach its overall objectives of ensuring greater religious neutrality in the Quebec state.
"We don't want the clause to allow everyone to remove themselves systematically from the obligation in terms of religious symbols," the official said.
The exemption clause might help the PQ proposal survive an eventual challenge based on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which will be a crucial test to ensure its acceptability across the country.
The PQ is also planning to ban religious symbols such as veils from most daycares, but it will not stop someone who has subsidized spaces in a home-based facility from wearing a hijab.
The broad details of the Parti Québécois's proposals were first leaked to a Quebec newspaper last month, proving popular in parts of Quebec in public-opinion polls, but raising major concerns among rival parties and in the media.
The PQ is planning to release the broad outlines of its proposal on Tuesday, leading to an informal round of consultation before the formal legislation is tabled later this fall. At that point, the bill will be subject to full legislative scrutiny in the National Assembly.
The Quebec Liberal Party has rejected the PQ's approach, but the third-place Coalition Avenir Québec is open to restrictions on religious symbols among provincial employees such as law-enforcement officials.
Federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has blasted the premises of the charter, but the NDP and the Conservative government are waiting to see the actual document before passing judgment.
PQ officials have explained the need for a charter by stating that the Catholic Church agreed to largely step out of the health and education fields in the 1960s, and that there is now a need for new restrictions to deal with the growing religious diversity in the province.
The PQ is arguing that government employees must be politically neutral, and that the charter will aim to ensure religious neutrality as well.
Still, the Quebec government has created controversy by vowing to protect the province's "historical heritage," and plans to leave a large crucifix in place in the National Assembly.
Quebeckers: How would a ban on religious symbols at work affect you? Tell us here