QUEBEC -- The Parti Quebecois' controversial charter of values has received the staunch support of an influential backer: a union representing the province's civil servants.

The SFPQ union, which has 42,000 members, applauds the government for "finally" tabling a policy that would ensure the religious neutrality of government offices.

The PQ plan would forbid Quebec's public employees from wearing more visible religious symbols -- including hijabs, turbans, yarmulkes and larger-than-average crucifixes.

"We're obliged to keep our political opinions to ourselves," union president Lucie Martineau said Wednesday.

"We want that extended to our religious opinions."

Other unions have said they plan to consult members before taking a public position.

Martineau said that even if some employees wear the religious symbols, for now, she doesn't expect anyone to be fired eventually. There hasn't been a single complaint from an employee in the six years since the union began voicing its opinion on the topic, she said.

The plan would be the most sweeping of its kind in North America and its critics call it a bureaucratic mess, unconstitutional or, even worse, xenophobic. Its supporters insist it can work, in law and in practice, and be fair to Quebecers.

Premier Pauline Marois, in her first public comments since the plan's release Tuesday, said she's pleased. She welcomed the upcoming debate.

"I'm very proud of the charter, the proposal we issued," the premier told reporters on her way into a cabinet meeting Wednesday.

"The debate is open now. People have the right to express themselves. It's been on few a few hours, vigorously. But I hope the debate will be done as serenely as possible. Because I think we need to set clear guidelines for how we live together."

As the premier walked away, reporters asked if she was concerned about Quebec's reputation. When she kept walking, a couple simplified the question in the hope of getting her attention by shouting out "Quebec-bashing!" "Quebec-bashing!"

They got their quote from cabinet minister Pierre Duchesne.

"I'm a bit fed up with people in English Canada talking about extremism," said Duchesne, the minister for higher education.

He said Quebec had made spectacular progress in escaping the clutches of the Catholic church in the 1960s, and did so in a peaceful way, and didn't need a scolding on the subject from English Canada.

He is not the first Pequiste to present the debate in binary terms -- as a Quebec-vs-Canada issue.

However, a number of opinion columns in Montreal newspapers and complaints elsewhere suggest there are vigorous differences of opinion within Quebec society itself.

None of Montreal's mayoral candidates supports the idea. A legendary nationalist singer, Michel Rivard, denounced it on Facebook.

And two of the most prominent critics Wednesday were committed, longtime independentistes.

Federal MP Maria Mourani -- who now represents one-fifth of the much-reduced Bloc Quebecois caucus -- warned that this will do "grave" damage to her cause.

She said the independence movement has spent years courting minority groups and this risks undoing all that work. She also blasted the religious-symbols plan on its own merits.

"This will create systemic discrimination... especially against women," the Montreal MP told the French-language CBC news network.

She added: "This is a very bad move for Quebec independence."

Meanwhile, Josee Legault, a political scientist, journalist, and former advisor to Parti Quebecois governments, wrote a lengthy blog post dissecting various aspects of the plan.

She bemoaned it as incoherent in every respect but one: the transparently electoral, "wedge-politics" motivations behind it.

"Kafka, meet Monty Python," she wrote in her L'Actualite blog.

"Incoherence and absurdity join the arbitrary. Congratulations on your nice program."

Quoting a recent column in Le Devoir, Legault also echoed the warning that perhaps the PQ's short-term tactical gambit to win votes could undermine the long-term objective of independence.

As it stands, the plan in its current form stands little chance of passing the legislature because the party with the swing vote, the Coalition, has called it too radical. The Opposition Liberals are even more staunchly opposed.

That leaves open two obvious possibilities: that the plan will be watered down and passed under the current PQ minority government, or preserved intact and used in the next Parti Quebecois election platform.

Several different international news outlets, including the BBC and New York Times, have covered the release of the details of the plan.

Polls have suggested a majority of Quebecers support restricting minority accommodations. However, other polls suggest voters in the province place the issue relatively low on the list of political topics they care about.

The government says its so-called secularism charter will be the subject of public consultations, then presented as a bill to the legislature this fall.

Some members of religious minority groups have promised to fight the plan or leave Quebec, as the mayor of Calgary and government of Ontario have invited them to do with the promise they'd be welcomed with open arms there.

Scores of mostly Montreal personalities have also signed an open letter slamming the plan. A Muslim group plans a protest Saturday.

But it has its supporters -- including within minority groups. One group, comprising small-l liberal North African Arabs, expressed support for a secularism plan even before it was tabled.

-With files from Alexander Panetta in Montreal and Patrice Bergeron in Quebec City