Quebec religious groups are decrying the Legault government’s public consultations on its secularism bill, claiming the province is refusing to hear from the very people its proposed legislation affects.
Representatives from Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Christian organizations gathered Tuesday in Montreal to voice their concerns as hearings began in Quebec City.
Avi Finegold from the Montreal Board of Rabbis argues the Coalition Avenir Québec government is “trying to limit the debate” on Bill 21 so that it will pass into law as quickly as possible.
“For the government to impose this blanket ban on differences in the public sphere is a very dangerous road to go down,” he said.
Bill 21 would prohibit civil servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols in the workplace. The sweeping ban would apply to teachers, police and judges, among others.
As a key promise made during the election campaign, Premier François Legault maintains the religious neutrality bill has widespread support from Quebecers. However, it has also sparked protests in Montreal, with critics claiming the province is trying to create division.
With the public hearings expected to last six days at Quebec’s National Assembly, two organizations that represent religious groups are poised to speak. Others say they are being excluded from the debate on a law that will force them out of the public sphere.
The Canadian Muslim Alliance says it made a request to present a brief at the public consultations, but the organization never received an invitation from the province.
“We feel disappointed,” said Mussabir Alam, an imam and co-founder of the alliance. “The bill is a direct attack to the religious community, but they are not at the table. They are not consulted.”
Quebec Immigration, Diversity and Inclusiveness Minister Simon-Jolin Barrette, the bill’s sponsor, defended the plan at public consultations on Tuesday. He described Bill 21 as “moderate, balanced and, above all, applicable.”
A total of 36 groups will present a brief during the public hearings from May 7 to 16. Jolin-Barrette has said he hopes to pass the bill into law this summer.
WATCH: Human chain against Bill 21
High school students hold walkout
As the hearings continued Tuesday afternoon, hundreds of teenagers took to the streets in Montreal’s West Island to protest Bill 21.
“We think it’s wrong and we’re going to fight against it,” said Lindsay Place High School Grade 11 student Lara Conn.
READ MORE: West Island students protest Bill 21
John Rennie, St. Thomas, Lindsay Place and Beaconsfield high school students banded together to voice their opposition alongside teachers. Many came out on behalf of their teachers, who they say are unfairly targeted by the proposed religious symbols ban.
“They should be allowed to wear their religious symbols and we wanted to come out to support them,” said Grade 10 student Kayla Fournier.
—With files from Global News’ Tim Sargeant and the Canadian Press