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Quebec to introduce law to restrict religious symbols in workplaces

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MONTREAL -- Quebec has launched its next debate on minority accommodation -- and this one could make the erstwhile soccer-turban ban look like a leisurely stroll down the pitch.

The government is preparing to introduce long-awaited, controversial legislation that would restrict religious symbols in numerous places.

A media report Tuesday with leaked details of the Parti Qu©b©cois government's Charter of Quebec Values said the proposed policy will prohibit public employees from donning Sikh, Jewish and Muslim head wear or visible crucifixes in the workplace.

The particulars drew swift condemnation from political adversaries and from a well-known philosopher, who likened the plan to the human-rights abuses of Vladimir Putin's Russia.

The Parti Qu©b©cois minority government hopes to cash in at the ballot box by championing a "secularism" plan polls have suggested has considerable support in the province.

So the fiery debate that erupted over a recent ban on wearing turbans on Quebec soccer fields offered a sneak peek of what could be in the political pipeline for the national assembly's fall session.

The turban ban was lifted by the Quebec Soccer Federation due to external pressure that included unflattering headlines abroad. Inside Quebec, however, Premier Pauline Marois rushed to the defence of the soccer federation and accused its detractors of Quebec-bashing.

Political opponents quickly cast Tuesday's leak as a PQ "trial balloon."

The newspaper report said the PQ government is set to restrict public-sector workers in places like daycares, schools and hospitals from wearing religious symbols such as turbans, niqabs, kippas, hijabs and highly visible crucifixes.

Some institutions, however, will be free to request exemptions from the government, according to the report.

The PQ's approach was roundly condemned Tuesday by civil-rights experts, including an outraged Charles Taylor, the internationally renowned philosopher who co-presided over Quebec's 2007 commission on the accommodation of minorities.

Taylor told The Canadian Press such measures would have a devastating impact on Quebec's reputation in the world and he feared it would keep entire communities out of public-sector jobs because of their religious convictions.

He said to find a comparable level of systemic exclusion, one would have to look to Russia.

"In Russia, if you believe that homosexuals should have the same rights as others you cannot be open about it. It would be considered propaganda, it's a type of crime of conscience," Taylor said.

"If we look at what is proposed here, for sure it does not go as far, but it says that if you have certain convictions you are a second-class citizen because those who have such convictions cannot apply for (a job) in the public sector."

The province, he added, would isolate itself if the PQ government digs in and moves forward with the policy.

"I challenge you to find another country in the hemisphere where we have this kind of exclusion," Taylor said. "There are countries much more diverse than ours, like Brazil, that will find this appalling."

He argued it's one thing to ban a teacher from wearing a burka, because an impediment to clear face-to-face communication could have an impact on other people -- namely, the students.

But he condemned a wall-to-wall, draconian approach.

If the Marois government drives forward with the legislation, it would likely face court challenges under the charter of rights, said Montreal human-rights lawyer Julius Grey.

"The type of secularism that is being promoted goes beyond what is acceptable," he said in an interview, expressing hope the plan would be struck down.


-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 21, 2013 A10

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