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A crucifix is seen over the Speaker's chair at the National Assembly in Quebec City.MATHIEU BELANGER/Reuters

Quebec's political parties are unanimous that the crucifix behind the Speaker's chair in the National Assembly must be conserved as an expression of the province's patrimony, of a long cultural-religious tradition that the majority must never be ashamed of embracing.

Except the heritage it symbolizes is of a bond between politics and religion. And it is impossibly contradictory to maintain the crucifix while also banning public-sector employees from wearing religious symbols, in the name of state neutrality on religion, as the Parti Québécois government is proposing to do.

When the National Assembly was erected in the 1880s, the only built-in crosses belonged to statues of missionaries who are among the historical figures ensconced in the building's façade. For the grand stone building's first half-century, no one saw the need to install more.

But shortly after he was carried to power in 1936, Premier Maurice Duplessis installed the crucifix in the National Assembly. He also ordered one for the Legislative Council Chamber, an unelected upper body abolished in 1968. That crucifix was removed without a peep of controversy.

Duplessis and his Union Nationale government swiftly eliminated whatever distance had until then existed between church and state; the installation of the crucifix was a calculated move, intended to symbolize the bond between party and clergy.

What, after all, is a crucifix? The Encyclopedia of French Cultural Heritage in North America describes it as the "symbol of the Catholic religion." And the National Assembly is "the very embodiment of the constitutional state," as the Bouchard-Taylor commission on reasonable accommodation called it. The crucifix in that assembly "suggests that a very special closeness exists between legislative power and the religion of the majority," the commission said.

That rapprochement, and the power it conferred on Duplessis, which he eventually used to commit breathtaking abuses, are not fondly remembered in Quebec, and for good reason. That's why the Duplessis era spawned the soft rebellion of the Quiet Revolution. Consciously or not, today's reformers are seeking to protect a central symbol of an era they claim to want to repudiate.