The minority Parti Québécois government has won a measure of support in the polarizing debate over religious rights in the province, with the Coalition Avenir Québec party saying it backs a ban on religious headgear for teachers and some other public servants.
A PQ plan to introduce a Charter of Quebec Values to fulfill an election promise is making waves in the province and across the country, exposing rifts in public opinion even as Premier Pauline Marois insists that, like the language law, Bill 101, her government's proposals will unify Quebeckers.
The CAQ holds the balance of power in Quebec's National Assembly, and its qualified support increases the possibility that some version of the initiative could become law. Leader François Legault said his party endorses the idea of a charter of secularism that would forbid police officers, judges, prosecutors and prison guards – as well as elementary and high-school teachers – to wear visible articles of their faith.
"To us, state employees in positions of authority should not be allowed to display religious signs," Mr. Legault said. "It's a question of credibility toward citizens who have diverse beliefs."
The PQ government has not confirmed the details of its proposed charter, but media reports have said the plan would prohibit Quebec civil servants from donning items like a Muslim hijab, Sikh turban or Jewish kippa in a broad ban that would extend to daycares, schools, hospitals and other public workplaces.
Mr. Legault called the PQ plan as outlined in the media "too radical."
The CAQ, the third party in the National Assembly after the PQ and Liberals, said there is no reason to apply the prohibition to doctors, nurses or daycare workers, and a government office worker who wants to wear a crucifix around her neck should be allowed to do so. The crucifix over the speaker's chair in the National Assembly should also stay, since it is part of Quebec's Catholic heritage, Mr. Legault said, a position that all parties in Quebec have backed.
The PQ government says it will table proposals in a few weeks with a formal bill to be debated in a parliamentary commission to follow.
The Premier told a press conference on Monday that past flare-ups over the accommodation of religious minorities stirred anger and division, and her government's proposals would help Quebeckers live together "by respecting each other."
"Far from dividing us, when the rules are clear, it allows us to better live together," she said while announcing the details of government reconstruction in the devastated town of Lac Mégantic.
"What we favour is the equality of men and women, but also freedom of religion," she said. "There is no question of preventing anyone from having convictions and practising them."
A new public-opinion poll shows the Marois government's initiative is popular among a majority of Quebeckers, but support fractures along language lines.
While 65 per cent of francophone Quebeckers support the idea of a values charter, only 25 per cent of anglophones and 33 per cent of allophones favour it, the Léger poll of 1,000 respondents found. The issue enjoys the strongest support outside Montreal, where immigration is low. The figures suggest the PQ has found a fertile issue to drum up electoral support, especially in the predominantly francophone ridings that determine the outcome of provincial elections.
The Quebec Liberals remain cool to the idea of a charter. Leader Philippe Couillard is calling it a diversion from issues such as job creation. "The PQ is trying to change the subject," he said over the weekend.
Meanwhile, after remaining mum on the topic for a week, federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair raised some concerns.
"I don't want to see scapegoating, particularly of Muslim women. That seems to be one of the particular targets here," he said in Ottawa. "So we'll wait and see what's in it. We're not going to allow something that goes against the Charter."