Quiet protests are shaping up across Quebec, as opponents of the province's charter of values are calling on everyone to wear religious symbols that would be outlawed by legislation aimed at intensifying secularism in Quebec.

Known as Bill 60, the charter would ban public sector employees, including teachers, doctors and daycare workers, from displaying or wearing religious symbols. Public hearings on the charter begin Tuesday.

A group called Support the Others is spearheading the campaign encouraging Quebecers to display religious symbols. Employees at one Montreal office on Monday wore combinations of hijabs, rosaries, kippahs and other religious symbols to denounce the bill.

A rally in Montreal took place Sunday to drum up last minute support for the group’s cause.

Most were wearing religious symbols, including oversized crosses.

"(It's) to show what we wear, whether it be around our neck, or on our heads, should have nothing to do with the work we do,`' said Norma O’Donnell, a nurse who attended the Sunday’s rally at Montreal's Place Jacques Cartier.

Bill 60 has become one of the most hotly debated political debates in Quebec. The charter essentially pits religious and individual freedoms -- which opponents of the bill argue has no relevancy to the work public sectors employee do -- against the PQ`s vision of a wholly secular society.

'Last stand' of Canada’s multiculturalist experiment

In an op-ed piece in last Friday’s New York Times, Jean-François Lisée, Quebec's minister for the Montreal area and for international affairs, spelled out the PQ’s argument for the charter, also known as Bill 60. Speaking of the "failure" multiculturalism in countries such as Germany and England -- which in recent years has seen backlashes in the form of right-wing protests against minority groups and immigration -- Lisée writes that "a truly secular state should not permit the symbols of any religion, whether of the majority or a minority, to breach the wall between church and state advocated by no less than Thomas Jefferson," referencing one of the United States’ founding fathers.

"In a very real sense, the debate over Quebec’s charter may be the last stand of Canada’s multiculturalist experiment. Whatever the immediate outcome, it may be only a matter of time until Canadian multiculturalism finds itself buried alongside its European siblings."

Lisée also writes that a fundamental pillar of Bill 60 is gender equality, saying no man or woman can work for the Quebec government with their faces covered by a burqa or niqab, "because such an act would imply inequality and segregation."

And that very argument, along with the whole of Bill 60, has resonated with a large swath of the province.

Thousands last fall, for example, marched in support of the charter in a rally organized by the Janette Movement, named after Janette Bertrand, an 88-year-old Quebec actress who strongly supports the adoption of Bill 60.

"At this moment, the principle of gender equality appears to have been compromised in the name of religious freedom," Bertrand said in the fall. "My whole life, I have fought for gender equality, and I have always believed in order to maintain that equality, we would have to remain vigilant."

Polls have also consistently shown that the majority of francophone voters -- in a predominantly francophone province -- support the charter. It also received the staunch support of the public sector SFPQ union, representing 42,000 members, which applauded the government for "finally" tabling a policy that would ensure the religious neutrality of government offices"

Opposition just a fierce

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre has been one of the most vocal opponents of the bill. While campaigning for mayor last fall, he made it clear that he wholeheartedly disagrees with the charter and has continually argued that the Quebec government has no right in determining who the City of Montreal can hire.

The mayor of Hampstead, a suburb of Montreal, said his government would also not tell people that they can’t work for the town because they wear a kippah, hijab or a turban or any other religious symbol.

In a strongly worded resolution that passed Hampstead council, Mayor William Steinberg said the town will not be "complicit with hatred, racism and intolerance."

Other Quebec municipalities came out opposing the measure as well.

Federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair called the charter "undignified," when it was first proposed, adding that "it has nothing to do with some high-sounding value. This has everything to do with the most base politics."

While the federal Conservatives have waded carefully into the provincial issue, Jason Kenney, the federal government's Minister of Employment and Social Development as well as Multiculturalism, told CTV News in the fall that Bill 60 is "a clear effort to violate what are undeniably fundamental and universal rights."

Thousands have also rallied against the charter in the streets of Quebec.

A potential election issue

An upcoming election in Quebec is a possibility as the opposition Liberals have threatened to vote against the PQ`s budget expected in March if it is not satisfied with what it sees. To bring down the PQ government, the Liberals would need the support of the third party Coalition for Quebec's Future, which has also been critical of the government's economic record.

Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard, however, has given notice that his party will also not be shy to claim some of the secularism terrain, with a vow to combat religious extremism in the province.

Couillard says the Liberals support some elements of the proposed charter such as a prohibition on people getting or giving public services with their face covered.

The Coalition, which holds 19 seats in the national assembly, said Sunday it would consider supporting the bill.

CAQ MNA Stéphane Le Bouyonnec said that Quebec needs such a charter but one area of contention lies in the definition of what exactly would be permitted or banned under the law.

PQ MNA Bernard Drainville, the minister responsible for the bill, expressed optimism that a deal could be struck to modify the bill in a way to make it acceptable the CAQ.

About 250 submissions are expected to be presented at the public hearings on Bill 60 which begin Tuesday in Quebec City.  Among those making presentations are the English Montreal School Board, the McGill University Health Centre and the City of Montreal. 

With files from The Canadian Press and CTV Montreal