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Federal NDP leadership candidate Jagmeet Singh takes a selfie during a rally in Ottawa this week.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

To place l'Affaire Singh in context, the current fracas over secularism in Quebec began more than a decade ago with a child and his ceremonial dagger.

In March of 2006, the Supreme Court ruled that Montreal teenager Gurbaj Singh Multani could bring his kirpan – carried by many Sikhs in Canada – to school.

Newspaper pundits and talk-radio hosts were outraged. Populist politicos, including Mario Dumont, leader of the now-defunct Action démocratique du Québec, sensed an opening. The province's "reasonable accommodations" crisis was born.

So when NDP leadership hopeful Jagmeet Singh, a Sikh who wears a turban and carries a kirpan, finds himself under attack in Quebec, longstanding grievances are involved.

That suburban Montreal NDP MP Pierre Nantel would call Mr. Singh's religious accoutrements "incompatible with what Quebeckers want to see in their public leaders" and "not compatible with power, with authority" is not a surprise.

Others in the NDP's provincial wing, which is chock a block with Quebec nationalists, have expressed similar beliefs. It is also conventional wisdom among most politicians at the provincial level.

This unfair attack on Mr. Singh seems to stem from a misunderstanding, possibly deliberate and certainly convenient, of what separation of church and state actually means.

The federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms is clear on this, as is Quebec's version: The state shall not favour one religion over another, and shall not interfere in an individual's religious choice.

This is the settled law of the land. So why won't more Quebec leaders stand up and state the obvious – that Mr. Singh can be a member of the Ontario legislature, as he currently is, or a leadership candidate, or a future Member of Parliament or even Prime Minister, and also be a Sikh?

Perhaps it's because Quebec's consensus definition of secularism – no "ostentatious" religiosity in the delivery of public services – has become just as much of a political third rail as language.

In the 2015 federal election, outgoing NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said that what matters is what's in your head, not what's on it.

It was principled, it was correct – and several NDP campaign staffers will go to their graves convinced it was politically ruinous.

The operating assumption in Quebec politics seems to be that wearing religious symbols and garb automatically equates to an evangelical fundamentalism on the part of the wearer, and no further investigation is required.

This is defeated simply by looking at Mr. Singh's platform and statements – what's in his head, not what's on it – which make it clear he holds the usual slate of progressive NDP views, including support for the religious neutrality of the state.

The whole uproar over a candidate's religion is hypocrisy, evinced most clearly in the fact that every recent provincial party leader has argued that Quebec can be a secular province and still hang a crucifix in the National Assembly.

The usual justification is that this Christian symbol is, in that context, merely a cultural artifact. Well, no. It was placed there three-quarters of a century ago by former premier Maurice Duplessis to symbolize a formal alliance between government and clergy.

It is the literal representation of the exact thing Quebec secularists claim to want to eliminate from the body politic, and yet they make an exception for it. At the same time, however, they demand that practitioners of other faiths remove religious symbols from their own bodies. It makes no sense.

This intellectual dishonesty will, inexorably, result in Quebec passing Bill 62, a law forbidding face-coverings for people giving or receiving government services, and one which Mr. Singh has publicly opposed.

The bill is not as corrosive as the Parti Québécois's odious (and failed) Charter of Values, but it's still bad. The Canadian Charter of Rights enshrines state neutrality toward all citizens. That's enough.

Or at least it should be. But in Quebec, that idea doesn't play well, while attacking Mr. Singh is partisan gold.

Mr. Nantel supports one of Mr. Singh's rivals, Guy Caron, in the NDP leadership. He has also publicly declared his interest in running for the sovereigntist Parti Québécois next year in a riding currently held by Martine Ouellet, a former PQ MNA who now sits as an Independent.

In a remarkable coincidence, Ms. Ouellet – whose part-time job is leading the Bloc Québécois, and who at some point needs to win a federal seat – has spoken in vague terms about the rise of a "religious left," allegedly exemplified by Mr. Singh.

Secularism can be its own religion, and fanatical adherents to its blinkered, flawed, made-in-Quebec version sometimes display an unwillingness to abide another's beliefs.

There's a word for that: bigotry.

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