MONTREAL — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau added his voice Thursday to the growing opposition to Quebec's new law prohibiting teachers, police officers and other public servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols.
Speaking to reporters in Washington, D.C., Trudeau said he and his government will defend minority rights everywhere in Canada. "We do not feel that it is a government's responsibility, or in a government's interest, to legislate on what people should be wearing," he said.
Commenting for the first time since the law was adopted Sunday, Trudeau did not specify what action his government would take to protect minority rights. Critics say the Quebec law unfairly targets Muslims, Sikhs and other religious minorities.
"We have a strong Charter of Rights and Freedoms that guarantees freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and we will certainly ensure that our views are well known and continue to defend Canadians' rights," he said.
A legal challenge of Bill 21 scheduled to be heard Thursday in a Montreal courtroom was pushed back to July 9 after Quebec government lawyers requested more time. The plaintiffs are seeking an immediate judicial stay on the sections of the law that restrict religious symbols at work and require that state services be given and received with the face uncovered.
Trudeau's comments came as Quebec's largest school board voted to delay application of the secularism law for at least a year to allow for consultations with parents, unions and other stakeholders on how to enforce it.
That move prompted a rebuke from the provincial government, which insists that the law takes effect immediately.
Premier Francois Legault told reporters in Quebec City on Thursday he is confident the school board will fall in line. "The law was adopted legitimately, and we will apply the law," he said, noting that those who held their jobs before the bill was tabled are protected by a grandfather clause.
Opposition to the secularism law has grown since the Coalition Avenir Quebec government invoked closure to pass it before the end of the legislative session. On Wednesday, McGill University's faculty of education issued a statement saying the law goes against the faculty's inclusive values.
"Bill 21 suggests to a portion of our students that they are not welcome in public schools because of their religious cultural practices," faculty dean Dilson E. Rassier wrote. "McGill University’s faculty of education is a place that upholds fundamental academic freedoms and represents a richly diverse community. As such, we will continue to support our students in their pursuits to become the best teachers and educators they can be."
In a motion passed Wednesday, the Commission scolaire de Montreal outlined plans for consultations with governing boards, parents' committees, unions and various associations to determine what changes need to be made to board policies to respect the law.
Catherine Harel-Bourdon, the board chairwoman and an outspoken critic of the new law, told reporters Thursday it is clear the law will need to be applied, but the board is hoping the government understands the issues with application.
The board has 191 schools and nearly 17,000 employees and will need to train hundreds of managers to enforce the law and avoid having it applied unevenly in different schools, she said.
Shortly before Sunday's vote, the government made amendments to the bill providing for inspectors to ensure the new law is applied and specifying that employees who flout the law risk disciplinary measures. The amendments led one Liberal critic to accuse the government of creating a "secularism police."
The school board said the system puts a "tremendous burden" on managers who, according to the amendments, risk reprisals if they do not comply with the law adequately and consistently.
The English Montreal School Board voted not to implement the planned restrictions on religious symbols before the bill was even tabled, and a spokesman said Thursday the issue will likely come up for further discussion at a meeting next week.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press
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