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Details of controversial 'values charter' plan released

Canadian Press THE CANADIAN PRESS

QUEBEC – The Quebec government has released its proposals for a controversial “values charter” aimed at restricting religious clothing and symbols in the public sector.

If adopted by the legislature, the plan would apply to every public servant; civil authorities like judges, police, and prosecutors; public daycare workers; teachers and school employees; hospital workers; and municipal personnel.

“The state must be neutral because it must show the same respect for all religions – regardless of their beliefs,” said the minister responsible, Bernard Drainville.

“This is measured, balanced. Quebec is increasingly a multiethnic, multireligious society. This is a great source of richness. It’s also why we need clear rules.”

Institutions could request an opt-out clause, renewable every five years, although Drainville offered few details about how that mechanism would be applied.

Institutions could request a “reasonable accommodation” if they can satisfy four conditions – the accommodation must prevent discrimination, must satisfy gender equality, must be reasonable, and must not affect personal safety.

The giant crucifix above Montreal’s Mount Royal – and the one above the Speaker’s chair of the legislature – will be spared under the logic that they are integral to Quebec’s cultural history.

Public employees who wear visible crucifixes, however, will have to tuck them away.

In an interview with AdvocateDaily.com, Toronto civil litigation and employment lawyer Arthur Zeilikman says while maintaining a secular core in public institutions is important, the proposed charter is limiting and unnecessary.

“This is because there is no harm in wearing a kippah, a hijab, a crucifix or any other innocuous representation of faith,” he says. “As long as public service is done in an impartial and professional manner, benign manifestations of religion should not be curtailed. This is in spite of the fact that a secular society is more beneficial in the long run.”

A line should be drawn, however, on items concealing facial expressions, suggests Zeilikman, because, “face-to-face interaction is crucial in a free and democratic society.”

If adopted, the charter will likely be subject to a challenge under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, he adds.

“I believe that such legislation would not pass muster in Ontario as the political culture is different. Quebec is known for its often unyielding need to preserve its heritage, often at questionable costs,” Zeilikman tells AdvocateDaily.com.

The Parti Quebecois government revealed its suggestions Tuesday in the provincial legislature, 13 months after making an election pledge to introduce such a plan.

While polls have suggested the idea could be popular in Quebec, it has been denounced by some politicians inside the province and from many outside.

The federal government has voiced its wariness of the plan, without getting too deeply involved so far.

The minority PQ government cannot pass legislation alone and has said it will seek consensus with other parties before moving forward.

Though the specifics had always been vague, the PQ idea flows from an election promise to bar people from wearing religious clothing like hijabs and kippas while working in government institutions.

The party has been emphasizing hot-button identity issues since it was drubbed in the 2007 provincial election. In that election the PQ finished behind the conservative, populist, and now-defunct Action democratique du Quebec.

Some pundits now speculate that the PQ might be trying to drag out the “charter” debate to make Quebec’s identity – and not other issues, like the economy or social services – the heart of the next election campaign.

-With files from AdvocateDaily 

© 2013 The Canadian Press

 

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