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Quebec legislature's crucifix hangs over secularism debate

A crucifix hangs on the wall above the Speaker's chair at the Quebec legislature in Quebec City in this May, 2008 file photo.

Clement Allard/The Canadian Press

Heritage icon to some, inappropriate religious symbol to others, the crucifix in Quebec's National Assembly is being thrust into the centre of the province's roiling debate over faith and state secularism.

An opposition party is tabling a motion on Tuesday to discuss removing a crucifix that has hung over the Speaker's chair in the legislature for 81 years, arguing the province cannot call itself a secular state while protecting a Roman Catholic symbol in the place where politicians pass laws.

Banning the niqab is bigoted and sexist. Or is it?

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Controversial new Quebec legislation, Bill 62, requires women to remove face veils to obtain public services; the stated purpose in the bill's title is "to foster adherence to State religious neutrality." Yet the legislation was debated and voted on inside a legislature dominated by a crucifix, which the new law will protect as a piece of Quebec's religious cultural heritage.

"We've talked a lot about the clothes people wear," said Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, an MNA with Québec Solidaire, who is submitting the motion. "Now it's time to talk about the apparent secular nature of the most important institution of Quebec democracy, the National Assembly."

In an interview, Mr. Nadeau-Dubois said he favours moving the crucifix to a display case elsewhere in the legislature building.

"For us, there's something profoundly contradictory in the fact we've been debating secularism all these years without having the political courage to take action on the crucifix," he said.

The presence of the crucifix has fuelled perceptions that the Liberal government's religious-neutrality law unfairly targets minority faiths, specifically Islam.

The portion of the bill requiring uncovered faces to obtain services has been criticized as discriminatory and unnecessary; mayors in cities across the province, including Montreal, have indicated they will not enforce it.

Responding to the uproar, Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée says she will release details on Tuesday on how the law would be implemented.

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Through the years, the cross in the National Assembly Salon Bleu has had staying power. It was first installed in 1936 and viewed as a symbol of the bonds between the state and the powerful clergy of the day. It has survived major social upheavals such as the Quiet Revolution, when the province exited the shadow of the church to become a secular state. Successive governments have been reluctant to touch it. A report by academics Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor in 2008 recommended removing it, saying "it seems preferable for the very place where elected representatives deliberate and legislate not to be identified with a specific religion. The National Assembly is the assembly of all Quebeckers."

Instead, the National Assembly voted unanimously to maintain it.

Mr. Nadeau-Dubois even challenges the very heritage value of the legislature's crucifix. Historical reports say the original was replaced in 1982 by a new version.

"There's something ironic about defending the current crucifix as a heritage object, when it's not even the original one," he said. "It's a copy."

The motion by the left-leaning Québec Solidaire to debate the removal of the crucifix requires the support of the governing Liberals to move ahead. The main two opposition parties, the Parti Québécois and Coalition Avenir Québec, support the motion. The PQ says that if it were in government and all parties agreed, it would be open to removing the crucifix. The CAQ says it is open to discussing the issue, although its historic position is to leave the crucifix.

If the motion is adopted, the debate would be referred to a closed-door meeting of the Office of the National Assembly, a body made up of selected MNAs tasked with setting administrative rules for the legislature.

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About the Author

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More

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