09/17/2013 01:58 EDT | Updated 11/17/2013 05:12 EST

State secularism only objective of charter, PQ's Lisée says

The Parti Québécois today is attempting to clarify its position on the proposed charter of Quebec values, a massively controversial bill that has divided Quebecers since details were announced last week.

If one message was clear from the news conference held Tuesday by the PQ’s minister responsible for Montreal, Jean-François Lisée, it was this:

“We support religious freedom. The debate we’re having is about the neutrality of the state. Nothing else,” Lisée said.

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He was careful to emphasize the point of the proposed charter, which would ban the wearing of overt religious symbols in the public sector, was to promote the neutrality of the state and not of the general population.

He said it was as simple as asking public sector workers to remove religious symbols — a hijab, a kippa, a yarmulke, a large cross — while in the workplace, and to put them back on when they left.

“The neutrality of the state is also the neutrality of the people who represent the state,” Lisée said.

He said Quebec has been subjected to a decade’s worth of heated religious accommodation because there has been no definitive action from the government.

The proposed charter of values, colloquially known as the secular charter, would accomplish that, he said.

Lisée pointed to the gradual move toward secularism Quebec has made over the past 50 years, starting with what he called the deconfessionalization that happened in the province’s Quiet Revolution of the 1960s.

The process of deconfessionalization began with requiring nuns to remove their habits, since many of them worked in education and social services.

It continued in the 1990s when the education system in Quebec, which had previously been split along Catholic and Protestant lines, was divided into English and French school boards.

“We collectively accepted that the neutrality of the state was more important that the individual rights of all the parents in Quebec, and it went quite well,” Lisée said.

He said a number of countries have moved toward state secularism over the past decade or so.

In Turkey, he said, state secularism has existed for nearly 100 years. Lisée said it wasn’t because of Islamophobia, but rather because the government wanted a neutral state within a very religious society.

However, the cross in the province’s national assembly will remain, he said, as a tribute to the role Christianity has played in Quebec’s history.

Lisée said Premier Pauline Marois and her party plans to implement the charter with gentleness.

“How can we make this transition as harmonious as possible?” he asked rhetorically during the news conference.

Giving municipalities the choice to opt out came from looking at Cote St-Luc, a historic Jewish area in Montreal that is characterized by its religious community. He also pointed to the Jewish General Hospital, which he said is, like the cross in the national assembly, also part of Montreal and Quebec’s history.

He said situations like these merited some gentleness in the application of the charter, if it were to pass.

Since details of the charter of values were leaked in August, Quebecers have been vocal in expressing their opinions.

Recent altercations suggest some Quebecers are using the debate as an opportunity to target Muslims.

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Lisée said people are within their rights to observe whatever religion they please and said recent incidents of religious intolerance were “disgusting.”

“I’m calling on all Quebecers to have a respectful debate about this,” he said.

“The freedom of the religion and the freedom to express their religion is a fundamental law that we support, that we defend and which is part of our democratic lives.”