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Québec Leader François Legault addresses a news conference before a party caucus meeting in Oct., 2016, in Quebec City.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Quebec Premier François Legault called on federal party leaders Wednesday to stay out of the legal challenge to his province’s contentious law banning many public servants from wearing religious symbols.

Intense debate is playing out in the province over the law − that prevents public-sector employees such as teachers and police officers from wearing religious symbols on the job.

Mr. Legault made the demand of the leaders hours after the federal election campaign began. Quebec is a critical battleground in the campaign and the law has garnered support from many voters in the province – while it has also been the subject of criticism and accusations of discrimination.

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“I am asking all federal leaders to make a promise not to participate directly or indirectly in any legal challenge of Bill 21,” he said, speaking in Quebec City. “I am asking them to make an undertaking – not just for now but forever – to never challenge the legislation. It is up to Quebeckers to decide, Quebeckers have decided."

The provincial government included the notwithstanding clause in the bill to insulate itself against Charter challenges related to freedom of religion when it passed the bill in June. The law is now being challenged in Quebec Superior Court on questions of jurisdiction and broader constitutional principles, not covered by the notwithstanding clause.

Before Mr. Legault’s comments, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau hedged over the possibility of intervening at a news conference in Ottawa. “At this time," he said, “I feel it would be counterproductive to engage in this process.”

He didn’t explain how it would be counterproductive but made clear he is against the law. “I am not in agreement with Bill 21. I do not believe that in a free society that we should allow discrimination against anyone," Mr. Trudeau said.

He added that he is “very pleased that Quebeckers themselves have chosen to contest this bill in court” and he said he is “watching very closely the process and considering the federal potential actions.”

The Liberal campaign referred The Globe and Mail to Mr. Trudeau’s comments when asked for a response to the Quebec Premier.

While the Liberals left the door open to intervening, the NDP and Conservatives firmly shut it.

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“We do not have the intention of intervening in this case,” Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said in Trois-Rivières, Que.

“It’s clear that elected members in Quebec have made their decision and people who are against that legislation are appealing to the courts, which is their right,” he added in French.

He didn’t answer questions about whether the bill infringes on religious freedoms, but said he would “never proceed” with a similar bill at the federal level.

The NDP said it would not intervene in the legal challenge if it forms government, saying the province “has the right to legislate in its jurisdiction."

Despite that, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, whose party recently released a Quebec ad tooled toward addressing head-on his identity as a turbaned Sikh, told The Globe in an interview Tuesday that he is against the law.

“Laws shouldn’t encourage discrimination,” he said. “Laws should be working towards tearing down barriers and including more people. I think every political leader should stand together with that.”

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The Green Party said it didn’t have any comment on Mr. Legault’s challenge. In August, though, Leader Elizabeth May told the CBC that her party would not take on the “cause” of intervening in the court case. However, her deputy leader in Quebec has advocated for intervening in the case.

Ichrak Nourel Hak, backed by the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Montreal lawyer Catherine McKenzie, filed the lawsuit in June just days after the law was passed by the National Assembly. The case has not yet been heard in court. An application to immediately suspend the law until the case is resolved was denied and that ruling is now being appealed.

Mustafa Farooq, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims said his organization doesn’t have a position on whether the federal government should intervene.

Calling the law “one of most significant civil-liberties struggles of our generation,” Mr. Farooq called on "all parties to clearly and consistently condemn Bill 21.”

With reports from Daniel Leblanc and Les Perreaux

Leaders took to the microphones to outline first glimpses of party election platforms and to take pokes at each other Wednesday after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau officially started the election race earlier in the day. The Canadian Press
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