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Quebec religious symbols debate becomes personal and emotional

Click to play video: 'Teachers should be exempted from religious symbols ban' Teachers should be exempted from religious symbols ban
WATCH: Lawmakers heard from the Quebec federation of school boards and the provincial association of teachers on Day 3 of public hearings into Quebec’s secularism bill. As Global’s Raquel Fletcher reports, the groups argue teachers should be excluded from the ban on religious symbols – May 9, 2019

Teachers should be excluded from the government’s religious symbols ban, say the Fedération des commissions scolaires du Québec (Quebec Federation of School Boards) and the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers.

If passed into law, Bill 21 would ban public servants in positions of authority, including teachers, from wearing religious symbols while at work.

The religious symbols debate can very easily get emotional and personal and day three of public hearings for Bill 21 was no exception.

READ MORE: Both authors of Bouchard-Taylor report speak out against Quebec’s secularism bill

In Thursday’s question period, Québec Solidaire co-spokesperson Manon Massé reminded the Quebec premier of a time when it was taboo for members of the LGBTQ2 population to be teachers.

“We gays and lesbians couldn’t teach or take care of children because ‘we were going to contaminate them with our difference,'” she recalled, using air quotes.

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“I don’t wear a religious symbol… but I’m different — and that’s written on my forehead,” she continued.

Massé recounted to the National Assembly that in the 1980s, she worked at a summer camp and her boss made her promise to not talk about her sexual orientation. The fear was that parents would pull their kids out of the camp.

She said Bill 21 is treating teachers who wear a religious symbol in the same way.

READ MORE: ‘I hope that God exists’: Premier François Legault pressed on his beliefs

Massé’s emotional appeal drew forbidden applause in the National Assembly, but it did not convince the premier who replied that Quebec’s religious signs ban is not that different from what is already in place in Germany, France, and Belgium.

“We will not be the only place in the world where some people cannot wear a religious sign,” said François Legault.

“And you cannot compare that to homosexuality. I think Quebec is really open in this matter and I don’t understand why she’s trying to compare those,” he said.

READ MORE: Quebec government refuses to say what penalties might apply to those who disobey proposed secularism law

There was more emotion during Thursday’s hearings when a group called Lawyers for Secularism and State Religious Neutrality were forced to defend comments by former Canadian senator Céline Hervieux-Payette.

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Summarizing a book by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born Dutch-American activist and writer, Hervieux-Payette said the hijab leads to female circumcision and forced child marriages.

She indicated it was one of the reasons she was in favour of Bill 21.

When questioned about this, the committee president warned her several times to be mindful of her comments so as to keep the debate under control.

Her colleagues then tried to mitigate her remarks and explain why they don’t want public employees to wear religious signs like the hijab.

“Whether he or she wants it or not, he or she is broadcasting a religious affiliation message. This is not a threat, but this is not neutral,” said François Côté.

“Teachers are crucial in the state’s mission to treat all citizens equally,” added Julie Latour.

READ MORE: Bill 21: Quebec’s secularism legislation praised, condemned as public hearings get underway

In a brief prepared for the hearings, the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers expressed the exact opposite view, saying that banning symbols is in direct contradiction to their mission which is to teach future citizens to be critical thinkers and open to the world.

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