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Politics Quebec’s secular charter will create cultural ‘ghettos,’ top Catholic bishop warns PQ

Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal, shown Feb. 14, 2013.

CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/The Globe and Mail

There's a warning from the Catholic church to the Parti Quebecois government: the push for a more secular state could backfire.

Msgr. Pierre-Andre Fournier, the head of the Assembly of Quebec Catholic Bishops, suggests the proposed charter could have unintended consequences.

Instead of a more secular Quebec, he foresees more resistance: more protests in the street, and more women isolated at home in what he calls cultural "ghettos."

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"The more you try to have an identity by pushing back others, the more you create ghettos," Fournier told a news conference Thursday in Trois-Rivieres.

"Women will stay at home and will not integrate — and neither will their children."

He suggested the PQ plan would be particularly unfair to Muslim women, pushing some to the margins while religious Muslim men could continue wearing beards while working for the state.

The Catholic bishops of Quebec are not opposed to the overall idea of a values charter, but they want some changes.

"We judge it reasonable for a government to want to set out the framework to demands for accommodation for religious reasons," Fournier said, adding it just makes sense if people want to live together.

Fournier said in an interview there are many grey aspects of the proposed charter and the bishops want to make it better to make sure the state respects religion.

The Quebec bishops support the plan's five criteria for minority accommodations, but are against the part of the charter that issues a broad ban on government workers wearing visible religious symbols.

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"It appears reasonable to us to want a secular state. Jesus did not hesitate to affirm: render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God's," he told reporters.

"While it may be true that the state is secular, society is pluralist. On the spiritual and religious plan, people are free to believe or not believe ... no official religion, but no official atheism, either."

Fournier also weighed in on the question of neutrality, saying "real neutrality" is the state respecting how people live and how they express themselves.

"If it is really neutral, the state will even take measures to assure that people can live their faith...and express themselves freely," said the archbishop of Rimouski.

The minority PQ government is expected to table a bill in the fall and has suggested it might negotiate with opposition parties afterward.

However, it is resisting having such discussions with opponents now and says it wants to give the debate more time to play out.

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Some of the debate may be occurring within the PQ cabinet itself. Two ministers have made contrasting statements this week, leading to contradictory news headlines about whether the plan will ultimately keep its current five-year opt-out clause for institutions.

Bernard Drainville, the cabinet minister responsible for the dossier, said clearly on Thursday he will not water down the charter but appeared open to discussing the "opting-out" clause.

"Nothing is off the table, we have made a proposal, it is a whole (proposal)," he said in Quebec City. "It is something that we want people to give their input on, so why should I take anything off the table?"

Two polls this week suggest the PQ plan is supported by about half of Quebecers — which is a precipitous drop from the levels of support expressed in recent months for the headwear-ban idea.

— Compiled by Peter Rakobowchuk

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