Quebec Premier Francois Legault defends secularism bill in video message
The Canadian Press
Published Sunday, March 31, 2019 2:23PM EDT
Last Updated Sunday, March 31, 2019 6:52PM EDT
MONTREAL -- Quebec Premier Francois Legault says his government's secularism bill does not violate freedom of religion.
In a video released to his social media channels on Sunday, Legault says his government is taking a moderate approach by banning the wearing of religious symbols in some sectors of the public service.
The legislation tabled last week would prohibit public servants in positions of authority -- including teachers, police officers, Crown prosecutors and prison guards -- from wearing religious symbols.
The law also calls on a wide array of public servants to exercise their functions with their faces uncovered, and says people who want to receive public services must also show their faces when necessary for purposes of identification or security.
Legault describes the approach as a compromise, pointing out that his government included a grandfather clause that would exempt current employees from the restrictions as long as they remain in the same job.
He also reiterated arguments previously made by Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, who said Bill 21 is an affirmation of Quebec's distinctiveness -- and its decades-long drive to separate church and state.
"In Quebec, it's been a long time since we've decided to separate the church and state, and it's over 10 years that we've been debating religious symbols," Legault said in the three-minute clip.
"It's time to set rules, because in Quebec that's how we live."
The Coalition Avenir Quebec's legislation invoked the notwithstanding clause to shield it from court challenges, declaring the provisions of the bill would apply despite certain provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Legault defended that choice on Sunday, calling the clause a "legitimate tool" that has previously been used by other Quebec premiers.
"Secularism is not contrary to freedom of religion," Legault said. "Each can practice the religion of their choice, but we have to set rules, and that's what we're doing."
Opposition to the bill tabled Thursday has been swift, and critics have denounced it as discriminatory towards women and religious minorities such as Muslims, Jews and Sikhs.
Groups including Amnesty International have said the bill contravenes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
Women's groups have pointed out Muslim women wearing a hijab will bear the brunt of the law's impact, and expressed concern they could face increased stigmatization and even violence.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante have both spoken out against the bill, with Trudeau saying it could open the door to discrimination.
At least two Montreal school boards and some municipal officials have said they won't enforce it. Quebec Solidaire, which holds 10 seats in the provincial legislature, decided on Saturday to reverse its previous position and declared itself in favour of granting public servants free reign to wear what they want.
It is not yet clear exactly what constitutes a religious symbol, nor what the consequences will be for failing to comply.