Quebec Archbishop Gerald Cyprien Lacroix, among a new crop of cardinals selected Sunday by Pope Francis, spoke out against proposed Parti Quebecois legislation that will be the focus of public hearings beginning Tuesday.
The PQ government's plan would ban public-sector employees — including teachers and doctors — from displaying or wearing religious symbols in the workplace.
"We're dividing people," Lacroix told a Quebec City news conference when asked about the charter, a document tabled last fall by the minority PQ government.
"People are every day more afraid of each other. Instead of bringing us together and bringing our cultures together and sharing the richness of who we are, we're starting to build walls and be afraid of each other.
"And I don't like that. I don't think that that's where humanity should be going."
Bill 60 would force state employees to take off their headscarves, kippas, turbans and larger-than-average crucifixes if they want to keep their jobs.
Lacroix, one of 19 men named to the senior post in the Roman Catholic Church, also said the universal charter of rights states that people have the right to profess their faith in private or in public.
"And that needs to be upheld everywhere," said Lacroix, whose powerful new position enables him to participate in choosing the next pope.
The government proposal will go under the microscope in Quebec City starting Tuesday, when public hearings into the document are set to begin. Individuals and groups have presented briefs and will be given an opportunity to express their positions on the subject.
The Quebec government argues the charter would shield the province from what it describes as increasing fundamentalism and says it would provide protection against gender discrimination.
Polls have suggested the PQ proposal is relatively popular in the province, but opposition to Bill 60 has been vocal.
The government has faced criticism for the plan, including anti-charter protests and calls from ex-PQ premiers Jacques Parizeau, Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry for the project to be watered down.
Bill 60 has been condemned by federal parties, with the exception of the Bloc Quebecois, as being unnecessary and infringing on religious freedom.
However, the PQ cabinet minister who spearheaded the legislation predicted Monday that other provinces will soon be forced to follow Quebec's lead to ensure religious neutrality of the state.
Bernard Drainville said in an interview with The Canadian Press that it will become a "necessary debate" across the country and pointed to the recent controversy at Toronto's York University, where a male student requested that he be excused from participating in a group project with women.
The student, whose faith was not disclosed, cited religious grounds for his request last fall.
The man's professor originally rejected the request and the student met with his female classmates as scheduled.
But the professor said he was later told by the dean of the faculty that the student should have been accommodated, since the request did not have a substantial impact on the rights of his classmates.
"We are in the process of opening eyes in the rest of Canada," Drainville said.
"The rest of Canada are realizing there are unreasonable religious accommodations and that they put into question the essential principles of our democratic life."
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