REUTERS | CHRISTINNE MUSCHI
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois (left) comforts a mourner following a memorial service to honour the victims of the train derailment in Lac Megantic, Que., on July 27.
Religious freedom advocates say the proposed Charter of Quebec Values that would ban religious dress and symbols from public institutions is unlikely to survive a Supreme Court challenge.
But McGill University historian John Zucchi warns the charter could be a tactic by the separatist Parti Quebecois government to drive a wedge between Quebec and the rest of Canada.
Details of the proposed charter were leaked to a Montreal newspaper Aug. 20. Religious symbols would be banned from public institutions, though the crucifix at the National Assembly would be permitted to remain as a symbol of Quebec's heritage.
Employees of public institutions ranging from hospitals to daycares to police to government offices would not be permitted to wear any identifying religious symbols such as Muslim headscarves, Sikh turbans, Jewish skullcaps or kippahs or "ostentatious crucifixes," although discreet versions on a chain would be allowed.
Zucchi said he found it odd the Quebec government would move on the charter after the province had been ridiculed internationally over a decision to ban Sikh turbans from the soccer pitch.
The charter "reflects the nihilism" of a group of ideologues within the Parti Quebecois, said Zucchi.
"These ideologues see religion only in terms of myth and symbol and can't see the cross I carry on a chain my neck is there because it is something dear to me, means something to me not just a symbol I want to show off, but has something to do with my identity."
"The ideologues want Quebec to be distinguished from Canada," he said. Part of that is asserting there's "a Quebec way of thinking which no one ever defines carefully."
Quebec's Bill 52 that would bring in euthanasia is another example of Quebec's distinguishing itself, he said.
Then if the federal government or a federal institution such as the Supreme Court of Canada opposes either euthanasia or the proposed charter, the Parti Quebecois ideologues can say "federal institutions are once again lording it over Quebec, or hitting back at Quebec," he warned.
The Journal de Montreal, the paper that first leaked the charter details, posted the results of a Leger survey Aug. 26 showing support for its measures fall along linguistic lines.
Francophone Quebeckers are behind the proposed charter by a 65 per cent majority while only 25 per cent of anglophones and 33 per cent of allophones would support it.
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois has said the Charter of Quebec Values will help to unify Quebeckers just as the province's 40-year-old French-only sign law has done.
Zucchi, however, said he wonders if the charter is an attempt to "divert attention" from "real" economic and political issues, including the euthanasia bill. The tactic might be to "get people riled up over the charter but quietly go ahead with euthanasia," he said.
The Assembly of Quebec Bishops (AECQ) will not make an official statement on the charter until the legislation is made public and the bishops meet for their plenary assembly Sept. 17-20, said AECQ spokesman Bertrand Ouellet.
The bishops, however, issued a document in January 2013 entitled Catholics in a Pluralist Quebec that addresses many of the principles likely to appear in an AECQ response. The document addressed the concept of "laicity."
"An institution is described as non-confessional, and is characterized by laicity, if it is independent of any religious belief," the document says.
"It neither favours nor discriminates against any church or religious group in particular. For their part, churches and religious groups have no power within such an institution."
But the document stresses "laicity" applies only to institutions and not society as a whole.
Society is made of people with a range of beliefs and convictions and "religious adherence and religious organizations are part of society," the document says.
"Moreover, one must not confuse laicity with opposition to religion, a mistake that is sometimes made in the heat of debate."
The Catholic Civil Rights League (CCRL) said, "In a society that guarantees religious freedom, it is difficult to see how such a sweeping ban could withstand a constitutional challenge.
"Canada's understanding of secularism, among other elements, is that the state does not favour any one religion, but rather welcomes all."
CCRL executive director Joanne McGarry noted Quebec has been struggling with the question of reasonable accommodation for a number of years. It comes out of a consciousness that the French Canadian cultural identity is being threatened, she said.
Though McGarry acknowledges opinion polls show a high degree of support for these measures, follow-up questions usually show the real priorities are issues like health care or the economy.
At stake is more than interference in religious freedom, but "the imposition of a kind of conformity" by the state, she said.
The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) general legal counsel and vice president Don Hutchinson noted that Marois has promised extensive public consultation on the charter.
"I think that a free and democratic society, which includes Quebec even though it has its own charter, will recognize that it is unreasonable to try and create a cultural unity based on appearance," Hutchinson said.
"And in fact constitutionally, the Supreme Court of Canada has already determined in the Chamberlain decision that religious opinion and presence is not just to be accommodated, but welcomed in Canada's public square."
Canada's highest court has also "recognized repeatedly that religion is comprised of both belief and practice, so those public dress components of religious practice would be an essential part of religion which under the charter would be permitted," he said.
"They [Quebeckers] have their own charter, but they are still bound by our constitution as long as they are part of Canada," Hutchinson said.