Quebec’s Charter of Values unveiled, takes aim at ‘overt and conspicuous’ religious symbols
Marois government will try to shield it from legal challenges by entrenching secluarism in Quebec's Charter of Rights and Freedoms
By Philip Authier, THE GAZETTE - September 10, 2013 12:13 PM
An image from a press package that identifies some of the religious symbols allowed,
not allowed, as part of the Quebec government's proposed Charter of values, detailed in a press conference Sept. 10, 2013.
QUEBEC — A tiny crucifix around the neck is fine and so is a small ring with the star of David or a little earring with a religious symbol.
But the Marois government proposes to prohibit the wearing of "overt and conspicuous" religious symbols by government employees — from judges right down to a daycare worker.
And it wants to make it mandatory to have one's face uncovered while providing or receiving a state service.
Quebec will also try and shield its new Charter of Quebec Values from legal challenges by entrenching the concept of religious neutrality in the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The whole package will be included in a bill to be tabled this fall in the National Assembly, Democratic Institutions Minister Bernard Drainville said Tuesday, tabling the Parti Québécois government's long-awaited proposal to create Quebec's first-ever Charter of Values.
"The time has come to rally around our common values," Drainville said at a news conference Tuesday. "They define who we are. Let's be proud of them."
Long-awaited and the subject of several leaks, Drainville's proposal was surprisingly detailed, including graphics showing the kinds of religious symbols the government will allow. Quebec makes provisions for religious heritage and will allow a religious symbol such as the crucifix over the speakers chair of the National Assembly to remain as well as the cross atop Mont Royal.
Defining what is conspicuous could rapidly become a problem but the government plan does not include a formal measuring system.
For example, regulations to apply Quebec's French Language Charter include a definition of what Quebec considers "marked predominance" on letters on signs.
But while the package does not address that question, the measures are, however, sweeping. If adopted, Quebec will "limit" the wearing of conspicuous symbols by state employees from the top down during working hours.
That includes personnel with power to impose sanctions, such as judges, prosecutors, police officers and correctional agents. Public and private daycare workers would have the same restrictions as would school board personnel in the elementary and high school system, plus in CEGEPs and universities.
The same goes in the public health and social services networks.
But as foreseen, Quebec plans to proceed softly down the path of state secularism by allowing for opting out.
In the case of CEGEPs, universities and municipalities, the board of directors or municipal council could adopt a resolution allowing its personnel to wear religious symbols.
"This authorization would be valid for a period of up to five years and renewable," the government's documents state. "It would not apply to the obligation of having one's face uncovered."
Making the pitch for the measures, Drainville said the package is based on fundamental Quebec values, including the equality of men and women.
"The time has come for us to rally around clear rules and common values which will put an end to tensions and misunderstandings," Drainville said in a statement Tuesday morning.
"Our proposals will be a source of better understanding, harmony and cohesion for all Quebecers, regardless of their religion or origin."
Earlier, Drainville symbolically turned over copies of the proposal to Premier Pauline Marois in a staged photo opportunity at her office.
The product of five years of internal debate in the PQ, the charter was a key element in the party's election platform as it tried to make mileage off the identity card.
But it was the subject of instant criticism as a proposal that would divide Quebec and might even be unconstitutional. Marois has said she believes the plan will be legal and Quebec will not need to invoke the notwithstanding clause to override the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Polls, on the other hand, showed Quebecers in favour of the package, fuelling the PQ's drive to charge ahead.
The government's failure to cash on the other identity issue of the platform, beefing up the French Language Charter, provided further incentive.
At a PQ caucus meeting in Carleton-sur-mer two weeks ago, Marois said the values charter would be one of the government's three policy pillars this fall.
Drainville, on the other hand, has said he plans to go slowly and wants a serene debate.
He plans to hold public consultations but not in the same form as the Bouchard-Taylor commission, which roamed the province, sparking clashes and nasty headlines.
Drainville plans to borrow a system Diane De Courcy used to consult Quebecers on Bill 14: Quebecers will be invited to submit their opinion online.
In that way, Drainville can avoid costs and criticism from the Liberals and the Coalition Avenir Québec that the PQ is using taxpayer money to pay for what amounts to a pre-election campaign swing through the province.
But the issue will collide with Quebec's electoral schedule as the days of Marois' minority government run down.
In that case, the bill may never be passed.
It requires the support of the Liberals and Coalition Avenir Québec. So far the CAQ has been the most open to discussion, presenting a similar package which does not go quite so far.
The Liberals, however, favour open secularism, which means while they believe the state should be neutral, they do not want to see religious headgear and symbols banned.
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