The City of Montreal announced Wednesday it will take down the crucifix that has hung in its council chamber for more than 80 years and move it to a new home.
The issue of crucifixes in legislative chambers across Quebec — in particular the one prominently displayed at the provincial legislature in Quebec City — has been central to the province’s debate over secularism.
Coun. Laurence Lavigne Lalonde told the city’s executive committee meeting that the crucifix, on display above the main door of the council chamber since 1937, will be removed ahead of three years of scheduled renovation work at city hall.
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Lavigne Lalonde said the crucifix was installed in a different era to remind councillors of the oath before God that they took and, it won’t be put back in the chamber when city hall reopens.
“I think we can agree the context has changed today,” Lavigne Lalonde said, noting society is now represented by democratic institutions that are secular, neutral and open.
The debate comes as the government moves to impose strict religious neutrality rules on state employees in positions of authority, including teachers, judges and police officers, who would be forbidden from wearing visible religious symbols. Legislation is expected in the coming weeks.
Montreal’s decision might also influence how Quebec proceeds with its upcoming religious symbols ban. On Wednesday, the premier said his caucus is discussing the issue.
“There are good arguments for and (good) arguments against and right now we have a debate,” he said.
“We have to find a compromise,” Legault added.
That’s not what the premier and members of his cabinet have said in the past. Since taking office in October, the the Coalition Avenir Quebec government has said it is an important part of Quebec’s heritage.
However, while the premier appeared to soften his position, the minister in charge of the legislation, dug in. In a separate press conference, at the same time Wednesday in Quebec City, government house leader, Simon Jolin-Barrette contradicted his boss, saying the CAQ still remains opposed to removing the crucifix from the legislature.
“The National Assembly here always decided to maintain, and that’s the position of the government because that’s a patrimonial symbol,” Jolin-Barrette said.
In fact, the crucifix belongs to the recent history of the National Assembly. A crucifix was first installed above the Speaker’s chair in the National Assembly in 1936, but the current crucifix dates back to just 1982. However, successive provincial governments have rejected requests to remove the symbol.
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Questioned on Wednesday about Montreal’s move, both Quebec Solidaire and the Parti Quebecois said they now believe the crucifix should be taken down.
“It should be a no-brainer that there’s no place for a religious symbol inside the National Assembly. That doesn’t mean that it can’t stay in the building, it can go in another room,” said Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, Quebec Solidaire house leader.
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Lavigne Lalonde said Montreal’s crucifix is an important piece of Montreal’s heritage, and it will have a new home in a museum space in the renovated city hall where other significant historical items will be on display.
The debate over Montreal’s crucifix and the place of religion at city hall has been going on for more than 30 years, beginning when prayers were replaced with a moment of silence in 1987.
Lavigne Lalonde noted the crucifix was supposed to be removed during previous renovations in 1992. A public commission was also expected to discuss the matter in 2002 but never held any hearings.
Mayor Valérie Plante said it is important to distinguish between the city hall crucifix — installed 82 years ago to guide municipal lawmakers in what is now considered a secular institution — and the city’s most famous cross.
“For example, the cross on top of Mount Royal, we don’t have any intention of taking it down, because it’s not a democratic institution where we make decisions,” she said.
“I think it’s important to make the distinction.”
With files from Global News’ Raquel Fletcher.