Quebec: Ban religious headwear in government jobs

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Quebec is proposing a law that would forbid government workers from wearing religious headwear such as hijabs, turbans, and kippas.

The separatist Parti Quebecois government said Tuesday the so-called "values charter" will be introduced for debate later this year.

The plan has revived a debate in Quebec over religious accommodation and has been widely criticized in the rest of Canada.

Bernard Drainville, the minister responsible for the proposal, says the goal is to ensure the complete neutrality of the state on religion.

The ban would apply to every public worker, including teachers and police. It would not apply to elected officials because people have a right to choose their representative, Drainville said. Smaller religious symbols, such as a Christian cross on a necklace or the Star of David on a ring, will be allowed.

The federal government has said it will seek the advice of the Department of Justice and suggested it could go to court if the proposal violates fundamental rights.

Kathy Malas, a Montreal speech-language pathologist who wears a headscarf, said she has no plans to stop working or take it off if the charter becomes law.

"I would fight it, for sure," she said. "For a government to dictate how people get dressed, it's unreasonable to me."

Jean-Francois Gaudreault-DesBiens, a University of Montreal law professor, said it would be subject to a legal challenge on constitutional grounds. Forcing a daycare worker who wears a hijab to choose between her religion and her job, for example, would be a violation of the Canadian Charters of Rights and Freedoms, Gaudreault-DesBiens said.

"It's clear that under Canadian jurisprudence those people can contest the law," he said.

If it does end up becoming law, the values charter will likely be much more modest and limited in scope than under its current form, said Pierre Martin, a political science professor at the University of Montreal.

The minority Parti Quebecois government cannot pass legislation without support from one other party, and it has said it will seek to build consensus. Asked whether officials and witnesses would still swear an oath on the Bible, Drainville appeared caught off-guard.

"Oh, my God," he said. "We'll get back to you."