MONTREAL — The Coalition Avenir Quebec government is running out of time and into a battle over what constitutes a religious symbol as it pushes to adopt the secularism bill promised in last fall's election campaign.
Premier Francois Legault and his cabinet have stated they want the bill banning many public sector workers from wearing religious symbols passed before the legislature's scheduled summer break this Friday.
But the premier Wednesday accused the Opposition Liberals of slowing down the legislative process to protest the bill, and a new amendment presented as a compromise seems only to be causing more delays.
Quebec's Bill 21 would prohibit public servants in positions of authority — including teachers, police officers, Crown prosecutors and prison guards — from wearing religious symbols on the job. The original draft of the bill didn't define religious symbols, drawing criticism from the Liberals and others groups.
The government's amendment introduced Tuesday states symbols, clothing, jewelry, ornaments, accessories or headgear that are worn with a "religious conviction or belief" would be banned for those in positions of authority. Objects that can be "reasonably inferred as relating to a religious affiliation" would also be prohibited.
But Legault declined to enumerate what symbols would be covered. Asked whether a wedding ring would fit the definition, he dodged the question.
"Listen, we won't start to get into details," the premier said in Quebec City. Pushed by reporters to answer, he would only say: "We will have a precise definition in the bill. We will improve (the definition) if necessary."
Interim Liberal Leader Pierre Arcand told reporters earlier in the day he doubted Bill 21 would be ready for adoption by Friday. The legislation is being studied clause by clause, and Arcand said his party has a lot more questions to ask about how to define religious symbols.
"The government seems determined to adopt this law immediately — without having discussions — under the pretext that we've been discussing this issue for the last 10 years," Arcand told reporters.
Legault said the Liberals' many questions are nothing more than "obstruction." The premier called on the "sense of responsibility" of the Liberal leader.
Arcand, Legault said, "needs to take notice of what Quebecers said last October," referring to the election where the Coalition Avenir Quebec won a majority government and tossed the Liberals from power.
"Quebecers said last October: 'We want police officers not to have the right to wear religious symbols.' The message is clear but Pierre Arcand and the Liberals have learned nothing."
What Legault describes as the opposition's intransigence leaves him with difficult choices.
He can extend the legislation session, wait until the fall to adopt Bill 21 or invoke closure and force an immediate vote on it.
But if Legault chooses to cut off debate and call a vote by the end of the week — which would certainly go his way as his party commands a majority — his government would be forcing through a highly contentious bill affecting religious minorities across the province.
The bill already invokes the Constitution's notwithstanding clause to prevent court challenges based on rights violations.
Another high-profile bill the government wanted passed by the end of this session is also being held up in committee.
Bill 9 creates a legal framework granting the government the authority to be more selective over who receives permanent residency in Quebec. The legislation also allows the government to cancel a backlog of roughly 18,000 applications for immigration to the province.
Legault's government wants to eliminate the backlog and have potential immigrants re-apply using a new system created to select migrants who are better suited to the needs of the labour market.
The Liberals want the government to process the backlogged applications but Legault is refusing. Arcand hinted Wednesday that should the government cede on that issue, "there is a way for this bill to leave committee."