Opposition campaign launched to fight Quebec's religious symbols law

MONTREAL — People from various faiths gathered in a downtown Montreal church Thursday to declare their intention to keep battling the province's secularism law, which prohibits some public servants from wearing religious symbols on the job.

The law is already facing a court challenge, but on Thursday opponents launching the "No to Bill 21" campaign opted for another tactic — buttons with a red line drawn through the words "Bill 21." They are also calling on people to wear the religious symbol of their choice, even if they don't normally wear one.

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Ehab Lotayef, a Muslim and one of the campaign co-ordinators, wore a Jewish kippa Thursday and plans to continue wearing it throughout the month.

The provincial law, which came into effect in June, bans public sector workers deemed to be in positions of authority, including teachers, police officers, judges and prison guards, from wearing religious symbols. A grandfather clause exempts those hired before the bill was tabled.

Lotayef called the law "unjust" and a violation of protected rights and freedoms. "We're not going to just accept it," he said.

A teacher who wears the hijab, who only disclosed her first name, Ola, because she fears reprisals, said that after a great year teaching in a Montreal elementary school last year, she has hit a wall this year.

She said that because she worked under a contract and was not a permanent employee, she would be obliged to remove her hijab if she wants to continue teaching.

"This law is depriving me of my rights, to be a free woman, able to decide where to work, what to wear. Personally, I do not see what this law will add to Quebec society that is new or better," she said.

"Except the social tension I feel and see, and that I live."

Rabbi Michael Whitman told the news conference the law's harmful effects "will go far beyond the people who are directly affected .... It gave permission to incivility."

The campaign's goal is to have 50,000 people wearing the buttons and religious symbols of their choice within a month.

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