No public servant - including Muslim teachers and judges - should be allowed to wear anything at work that shows what religion they belong to, leaders of Quebec's two biggest trade union federations and a civil-servants' union told the Bouchard-Taylor commission Monday.
"We think that teachers shouldn't wear any religious symbols - same thing for a judge in court, or a minister in the National Assembly, or a policeman - certainly not," said Rene Roy, secretary-general of the 500,000-member Quebec Federation of Labour
"The wearing of any religious symbol should be forbidden in the workplace of the civil service . . . in order to ensure the secular character of the state," said Lucie Grandmont, vice-president of the 40,000-member Quebec union of public employees.
Dress codes that ban religious expression should be part of a new "charter of secularism" - akin to the Charter of the French Language - that the Quebec government should adopt, said Claudette Carbonneau, president of the Confederation of National Trade Unions.
Such a charter is needed "to avoid anarchy, to avoid treating (reasonable-accommodation) cases one by one," Carbonneau said Monday, presenting a brief on behalf of the federation's 300,000 members at the commission's hearing on the integration of immigrants in Montreal.
That's the same point of view as the 150,000-member Centrale des syndicats du Quebec, which includes 100,000 who work in the school system, the commission heard.
Quebec needs a "fundamental law" akin to the Charter of Rights that sets out clearly that public institutions, laws and the state are all neutral when it comes to religion, said Centrale president Rejean Parent. The new law would also "define (people's) rights and duties . . . in other words, the rules of living together."
Under a secular charter, employers would understand that they don't have to agree to accommodate religious employees if, for example, they ask to be segregated from people of the opposite sex, Carbonneau said.
Similarly, religious students in public schools would understand they can dress as they like, but not if it means wearing restrictive clothing like burkas, niqabs and chadors, which make communication difficult, she told commissioners Gerard Bouchard and Charles Taylor.
And in the courts, "there are cases that are clear - I wouldn't want to see a judge in a veil," she said. Judges need to appear "neutral" so as to inspire confidence in their judgment, she added.
The unions' anti-religious attitude - especially the idea to ban hijabs on teachers - got a cold reception from groups as disparate as a Muslim women's aid organization and the nationalist St.-Jean-Baptiste Society of Montreal.
"What that would do is close the door to Muslim women who want to teach," said Samaa Elibyari, a Montreal community radio host who spoke for the Canadian Council of Muslim Women. "It goes against religious freedoms that are guaranteed in the (Quebec) Charter of Rights." [Link]
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