Policy - Leave 'conspicuous' faith symbols at home, teachers told

Quebec ban follows debate on religious dress around the world

Teachers in the Canadian province of Quebec are to be banned from wearing "ostentatious" religious symbols in schools - including turbans, hijabs, kippas and crucifixes - under highly controversial plans that have resulted in mass demonstrations.

The move is part of a "charter of values" proposed by Pauline Marois, the premier of Quebec, which would affect all public sector workers in the province.

The charter was needed, according to Ms Marois, to ensure that the secular nature of Quebec's civil service was maintained and to promote social cohesion. But it has provoked widespread criticism, with teachers concerned that they would have to choose between their jobs and their faith.

Explaining her plans to impose the charter, Ms Marois said that Canada should learn from problems encountered in other countries. "In England, they're knocking each other over the head and throwing bombs because of multiculturalism and nobody knowing any more who they are in that society," she said.

The row in Canada follows debate in the UK over whether Muslim students should be allowed to wear face veils - niqabs - at school or college. Birmingham Metropolitan College last week dropped a long-standing ban on niqabs after a prospective student complained that the dress code was discriminatory.

In France, ministers have announced that their own version of a "secularism charter" will have to be prominently displayed in all schools to reinforce the idea of the separation of church and state. State schools in the country already ban students and staff from wearing conspicuous religious symbols or clothing in a law that came into force in 2004.

In Quebec, a poll shows that some 60 per cent of the general population support the secularism charter, which will include pictures of what kind of "overt and conspicuous" religious symbols will be banned.

But Peter Sutherland, president of the Montreal Teachers Association, said there was no need for the move. "I've never encountered a complaint by a parent or employee about a teacher wearing a religious symbol," he said. "Under this divisive charter, any teacher who expresses his or her religion through dress or symbols could be asked to take it off at work."

Mr Sutherland dismissed the government's brochure showing what is and what is not acceptable. "The pictures are useless. School administrators will be forced to make decisions on what is and what is not ostentatious," he said.

Muslim community leaders were especially worried about the charter's impact on Muslim women who wear the hijab. "They are often the sole earner in their families," said Salem Elmenyawi, president of the Muslim Council of Montreal. "And they will be singled out at work and forced to choose between their faith and work."

Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party - and son of late prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who entrenched multiculturalism in the Canadian constitution - called the charter an "abomination". He accused Ms Marois of playing identity politics and of dividing Quebeckers. "I believe that it is important to defend people's freedoms, not restrict them," said the former high school English teacher. The federal government has pledged to challenge the charter in court should it become law.

Other critics include David Ouellette, president of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, who was concerned about the impact on male teachers who wear the kippa. "(Ms Marois) has made no case for why the wearing of religious signs in anyway compromises the religious neutrality of the state," he said. "The government has yet to demonstrate the need to toy with individual freedoms."

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