Quebec Presents Controversial Bid to Ban Religious Garb

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File photo: several woman in headscarf and burka at a polling station. AFP Photo / A. Majeed
File photo for illustration purposes only. AFP Photo / A Majeed

QUEBEC CITY, September 10, 2013. By Laurent VU THE (AFP) – Officials in Quebec Tuesday presented their controversial bid to ban religious apparel — including headscarves, turbans and yarmulkes — on public sector workers, part of an overhaul to the Canadian province’s “Charter of Values.”

The reforms are a response to the “crisis of religious accommodation” granted to ethnic minorities that has “created tensions between Quebecers of different backgrounds and faiths,” the minister in charge of the issue, Bernard Drainville, said at a press conference.

The proposal aims to create guidelines to help “unite” the province’s residents along principles of “equality between men and women” and “the religious neutrality of the state.”

“The best way to respect all Quebecers, the best way to respect all beliefs and all religious, is for the state to have no religion,” Drainville said.

That neutrality does not apply, however, to the crucifix that has adorned the main chamber of the National Assembly since 1936, which will stay up in deference to the province’s “cultural heritage,” he confirmed

The proposal, to be presented to parliament this fall, has sparked a raging debate since details were first leaked to the media three weeks ago.

It bans public sector employees from donning “conspicuous religious symbols,” including headscarves, yarmulkes, turbans, and large crosses while at work, but allows certain religious jewelry, as long as it is “not very visible.”

The proposal also requires people receiving state services “to make their faces completely visible,” a measure aimed at banning the burqa, a traditional head-to-toe garment worn by some Muslim women.

Quebec premier Pauline Marois had told a Quebec newspaper that, for her, a day care teacher wearing a head scarf carries a “connotation of a certain gap between the respect of equality between men and women, of a sort of submission.”

But the proposal has sparked strong criticism, including from a number of federal politicians.

“We are very concerned by any proposal that would limit the ability of Canadians to participate in our society, and that would affect the practise of their faith,” said Employment, Social Development and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney.

“And we are very concerned about any proposal that would discriminate unfairly against people based on their religion and based on their deepest convictions,” he added, promising to subject any law, if it passes, to a constitutional review.

Early polls showed a majority of Quebec residents supported the proposed charter, though they agreed it could cause divisions, local newspaper The Toronto Star reported.

In the last decade, school pupils have been banned from wearing headscarves or other traditional religious dress in countries including Spain, France, Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands, according to a 2012 report from Amnesty International.

In addition, France outraged many Muslims with a law against full face-covering veils in public which came into force in April 2011.

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