The leader of Quebec’s official opposition broke legislative rules Thursday by wearing a Parti Québécois (PQ) lapel pin and then compared it to the Jewish head cap worn by a member in the chamber the day prior to commemorate the Holocaust.
Jean-Francois Lisée‘s words triggered a heated exchange in the National Assembly that reflected the current level of debate in Quebec on the issue of religious symbols in the civil service.
“The premier seems to be fine with a hierarchy where religious convictions have more rights than non religious convictions,” he told reporters.
“I respect his position, but I profoundly disagree with it.”
Also on Thursday, a Montreal newspaper reported that a 17-year-old Muslim girl studying to become a police officer wants to eventually wear her religious head scarf on the job.
That prompted another opposition party, Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ), to announce during question period that police officers in uniform cannot serve the state and God at the same time.
The exchanges are part of a long-running debate in Quebec over how to manage religious accommodation requests by public employees, including teachers, judges and prison guards.
And the issue is surely to remain a major topic of discussion ahead of the Oct. 1 provincial election.
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David Birnbaum, a Liberal member of the legislature, said he wore his Jewish kippah in the legislature Wednesday for Holocaust Remembrance Day, a 24-hour period where Jews remember the millions slaughtered by the Nazis during the Second World War.
“I wore it with solidarity with survivors but also on the understanding that wearing that kippah in Quebec today, I could do so without an ounce of fear,” he said in an interview.
“And with the understanding that I could aspire to any job whatsoever in Quebec.”
All three opposition parties, to differing degrees, want to limit civil servants wearing conspicuous religious symbols on the job in order to preserve the secular nature of the Quebec state.
The governing Liberals, however, say state employees should be able to wear religious clothing on the job as long as their faces are uncovered.
Lisée stood wearing his party’s lapel pin and was asked to remove it by the Speaker because it broke rules stating partisan symbols are not permitted in the legislature.
Lisée took the pin off and said all citizens should be “equal in our displays of our convictions.”
“I am OK with the member who wore a kippah yesterday (but) we should also be allowed to display our political convictions,” he said.
Birnbaum said Lisée knew full well he wasn’t allowed to wear a political pin in the legislature.
“And he proceeded — I presume — with the forethought to compare the (political pin) with the solemn symbol of a people with 4,000 years of history,” he said.
“I’d like to hear him explain that.”
During a news conference later Thursday, Lisée said he “forgot” to remove his pin when he entered the chamber.
“Can we compare the Holocaust with the history of the Parti Québécois?” Lisée asked.
“No — the Holocaust is comparable to nothing else in human history … but what we were talking about today was the equality of citizens before the law.”
Also during question period, Coalition member Nathalie Roy asked why the Liberals weren’t doing more to prevent police officers from wearing religious symbols on the job — an accommodation request that has so far never been made.
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“Can you understand that a police car isn’t a place of worship?” Roy asked.
Justice Minister Stephanie Vallée responded by stating the Coalition wants to limit the individual liberties of citizens and to crush the dreams of young religious people who wish to enter the civil service.
“We don’t believe the opposition’s (position) is worthy of the future of Quebec,” Vallée said.
“(The opposition) is saying: ‘We don’t want you.’ Don’t crush the dreams of a young 17-year-old girl. I am for an inclusive society.”
Lisée , meanwhile, told reporters after question period he’s not looking to hurt young people’s aspirations.
“If your dream is to be a police officer, then it’s your choice to conform to the uniform, which is (religiously) neutral,” he said.
“If you think your faith is so important to you — that’s your choice. We don’t want to crush your dream, but it’s your choice.”