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A nun holds the cross that is the symbol of the Notre-Dame congregation in Montreal.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Federal reaction to Quebec's proposed charter of values is moving from condemnation to ridicule, as Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney says the idea of bureaucrats measuring the size of religious symbols is "almost Monty Python-esque."

The federal minister's comments come as thousands took to the streets over the weekend in Montreal to protest the province's plans to ban overtly-religious symbols in government workplaces.

"When Quebecers begin to actually contemplate the idea that provincial bureaucrats might be getting out a tape measure to measure the size of people's crosses, to see whether or not their earring is too obviously religious – this gets to a point of almost Monty Python-esque absurdity," Mr. Kenney told CTV's Question Period, in an interview broadcast on Sunday.

"And I don't think the majority of Quebecers will support that kind of overbearing application of the power of the state on what is a benign and frankly innocuous exercise of peoples' basic liberty."

Mr. Kenney said Ottawa is prepared to challenge the proposed charter in court.

"This should not be seen as a Canada versus Quebec issue," he said. "I know that the separatist government would like to frame it that way."

Supporters of the Quebec charter argue that the province took great pains to move away from the heavy influence of religion and the Catholic Church in public life and the charter is aimed at ensuring that separation of church and state continues.

But the minister pointed to that same history as something that should be kept in mind during the current debate over religious symbols.

"Let's not forget that just a few decades ago, most of the hospitals and schools in Quebec were largely being run by people – nuns – wearing headscarves and crosses," he said. "So that's the tradition of Quebec itself and I think it's something that should be respected."

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair also appeared on the program, describing the PQ proposal as "unbearable."

"For us, it's untenable, it's unbearable to think that a woman who's working as an educator in a daycare centre would lose her job because she's wearing a headscarf," he told CTV.

The proposed charter has stirred debate not only among Quebecers, but also within Quebec's sovereignty movement. The federal Bloc Québécois expelled MP Maria Mourani from the caucus last week for criticizing the proposal.

Mr. Mulcair – who described the Bloc's expulsion of Ms. Mourani as "pathetic" – was asked whether he would be inviting Ms. Mourani to join the NDP, but the suggestion received a cool response from the Official Opposition leader.

"Being a strong federalist party, I can't see, frankly, how that would work out," he said. "That would be quite a sea change for her."