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It's a worn-out cliché to say that in Quebec, the state has replaced the Roman Catholic Church. But how true it is, especially these days, when a government that should be focused on the province's economic woes is busy promoting what's pompously been named the Charter of Quebec Values.

The project, whose main elements have been strategically leaked to the media over the past three weeks, was officially published Tuesday in the National Assembly. Its major provision is a ban on religious symbols worn by public-sector employees. Hospitals, municipalities and universities will be allowed to opt out of the policy – but for renewable periods of five years, after which their boards and councils will have to vote on the issue again. This raises the prospect of a series of endless divisive debates.

Initially, Premier Pauline Marois's government wanted to title the new policy the Charter of Secularism, but it eventually chose Quebec Values, presumably because it has a softer, more nationalistic connotation – never mind that the "values" shared by Quebeckers are anything but made in Quebec. A heritage of two centuries of Western civilization, they've been contained since 1975 in the province's own Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.

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But now, far from simply promoting the sound principle of neutrality of the state, as many democracies do, the Parti Québécois government decided to add its own take on the moral principles that should guide the flock.

For instance, the charter implicitly proclaims that "multiculturalism" is alien to Quebec. By banning articles of faith from the public sector, it states that religion somehow pollutes the public environment and should be cloistered at home or in places of worship.

More importantly, it introduces a hierarchy of rights, giving priority to gender equality over religious freedom – a stark break with the philosophy of both the federal and provincial charters, where all rights are considered equal.

The priority given to gender equality serves to justify the ban on Muslim head scarves, on the grounds that they reflect inferior status for women. But what if this is a woman's own personal choice, made freely? And in any case, is this any of the government's business?

The irony is that while Ms. Marois's government pretends to protect women, the law will actually target Muslim women who choose to wear head scarves. They will be barred from public-sector jobs while their religious husbands are allowed to keep theirs, since the beards sported by many male Muslims do not fall into the category of "religious symbols." (Maybe the government should screen bearded employees to probe their motivations?)

Another tragic irony is that by targeting civil servants and educators, the law will penalize the immigrants who are, by definition, among the most educated, the most fluent in French and the best integrated into Quebec life. How unfair. How absurd.

Why would a government take it upon itself to define a set of values that its citizens should ascribe to? In what kind of societies does this happen? Certainly not in liberal democracies, where it is taken for granted that individuals are free to make up their own minds on moral and social issues.

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Up until the 1960s, French-speaking Quebeckers lived under the rule of the all-powerful church. Fifty years later, must they live again under the moral rule of another brand of clergy – a clergy whose new religion is a dogmatic conception of secularism?

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