QUEBEC – The Parti Quebecois has raised the political stakes on its controversial religion plan, presenting a tougher-than-previously-advertised bill in the legislature and threatening to call an election on it.
The PQ declared Thursday’s tabling of Bill 60 a measure of confidence in the government and then left open the possibility it might continue to be a confidence test at each future step in the legislative process.
The legislation would be unique in North America as a widespread ban on multiple types of religious clothing for employees in the public sector, including those who wear turbans, yarmulkes, hijabs and larger-than-average crucifixes.
It is a more muscular version of the draft plan described last summer, containing fewer loopholes and an additional stipulation that applies even to workers in the private sector who receive contracts from the government.
It might not pass the legislature, given the varying degrees of condemnation it has provoked from other parties. The PQ can either compromise, or take the bill to voters as part of a two-pronged campaign based on nationalist identity, with a stalled language bill the other key element.
Premier Pauline Marois held a news conference after the bill was tabled and said she believes the proposed legislation will unite Quebecers.
“We want this debate to take place in a serene atmosphere — a serene and respectful atmosphere,” she said.
”It is a great moment for our society. This a is a beautiful day for Quebec.”
In tabling Bill 60, PQ cabinet minister Bernard Drainville said it would guarantee the equality of men and women as well as the religious neutrality of the state.
The bill’s most controversial provision states: ”In the exercise of their functions, personnel members of public bodies must not wear objects such as headgear, clothing, jewelry or other adornments which, by their conspicuous nature, overtly indicate a religious affiliation.”
It would also force employees of a public organization to have their face uncovered while offering services, as would people receiving the services.
The minister responsible for the bill admitted, when asked at a news conference, that he has no idea how many people might lose their jobs as a result of the bill.
Drainville said it would have been wrong to go around counting employees with religious clothing because that would have amounted to “racial profiling.
He expressed the hope that not too many people would be affected.
“We don’t believe there’ll be many, many departures,” Drainville said.
“We hope they all stay”
Marois’ PQ has only a minority government and will have two basic options: water down the bill to get it adopted, or preserve it for an election campaign.
The Liberals have been deeply critical of the plan and have called for its clothing provisions to be all but eliminated with the exception of people covering their faces while receiving state services.
Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard described it as a frontal assault on fundamental rights and said he would never be complicit in allowing it to pass.
“This is a sad day for Quebec,” Couillard said.
“It’s a day of deep rupture with our history, of more than 400 years of openness, of welcoming and then integration. It’s a bill I can already describe as unworkable, illegal and unconstitutional…
“There are no facts, no studies, no demonstration of an urgent need — nothing. This bill lies on nothing — nothing real.”
The legislation also risks provoking a three-jurisdiction battle royale.
At the federal level, the Harper government said it will study the final bill as adopted and see whether it might need to be challenged on constitutional grounds.
In Quebec’s biggest city, the issue could mean a pitched battle between the PQ and the newly elected mayor of Montreal.
With only four days under his belt as mayor-elect, Denis Coderre has also warned he might challenge any such law in court and is planning to fight it in the meantime whenever there are legislative hearings.
“I will go to Quebec City . . . to represent all Montrealers,” Coderre said. “I think this charter is divisive.”
The swing vote on the issue likely belongs to the provincial legislature’s third party, the Coalition avenir Quebec. Party leader Francois Legault kept a low profile on the issue Thursday, but his recent remarks about the plan have been increasingly hostile.
On Thursday his party critic, Nathalie Roy, said it would have been nice for the government to have consulted the CAQ, which had put forward a milder plan.
The government’s response to that idea is that it wanted to introduce the bill first before discussing alternatives with other parties.
The bill’s formal name is as follows: Charter Affirming The Values Of State Secularism And Religious Neutrality And Of Equality Between Women And Men, And Providing A Framework For Accommodation Requests.
Drainville said the title was selected by government lawyers who worked on the bill.