01/15/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 03/16/2014 05:59 EDT

Secular charter hearings enter second day

The hearings into Quebec’s controversial Bill 60 enter their second day Wednesday and the big question seems to be what if any difference the whole process will have on the final product.

Both Bernard Drainville, the minister responsible for the proposed secular charter, and Premier Pauline Marois, the Parti Québécois leader, made it clear again yesterday that the hearings will not lead to any substantive alterations of Bill 60.

If passed, the legislation would bar all public sector employees from wearing overtly religious symbols.

Marois said outside the hearings that the ban is essential to Bill 60 and will remain.

"It's a basic part of the project," she said.

Drainville said the religious neutrality of the state must be "visible, apparent and concrete."

Drainville maintained that Bill 60 is a moderate document that offers made-in-Quebec secularism.

"It's a bill for Quebecers that reflects what we are as a society," he said.

"It's a moderate, well-balanced bill and the kind of state secularism that we are proposing is going to be a state secularism that is unique to the Quebec society."

However, it's not clear how that determination will translate when it comes to enforcing the law. Drainville has ducked questions about whether government employees would lose their jobs if they wore religious symbols. He was no clearer Tuesday.

"If a person refused to take off the religious sign, they would be confirming they are putting their religion above everything else, above the common interest and above the law," he said.

The PQ government argues the charter would shield the province from what it describes as encroaching fundamentalism and says it would provide protection against gender discrimination.

A mostly pro-charter day

The first day of testimony heard many pro-charter voices. Sam Haroun was one of them.

“We are in a state of law. If someone is not happy, he can go to the courts to say this law is against my principles...let the court decide who is right and who is wrong,” he said.

The coming days and weeks will hear from many voices opposed to the secular charter, including outspoken critics like the English Montreal School Board, which says Bill 60 is a recipe for “bullying.”

Drainville said the point of the exercise is to hear all sides of the issue.

He believes the hearings will help convince Bill 60's critics that his government is listening to their concerns.

"Even if people are against the charter, if they have the impression they have been listened to and respected, they will be more inclined to respect it when it becomes law," he said.

Opposition critics used the hearings to reiterate their positions on Bill 60.

Nathalie Roy of the Coalition Avenir Québec said the PQ’s proposed legislation is anything but moderate and argued for a less restrictive ban.

“The PQ is too radical,” she said.

The Liberals, meanwhile, said there’s no room to compromise on proposed legislation that they say takes away people’s fundamental rights and freedoms.

“We are the only party represented here at the national assembly that will stand for our rights and liberties, very clearly,” said Marc Tanguay, the Liberal’s Bill 60 critic.

Spring election rumours

Such divisions are also apparent regarding other PQ policies, including many of its budgetary measures.

Bernard Drainville said the Liberals and the Coalition Avenir Québec have made it clear they will vote against the provincial budget, which is expected in a few months.

That would topple the Parti Quebecois minority government and trigger a province-wide vote, which would likely take place before the charter is voted on in the legislature.

With more than 200 hours of testimony still to get through, there are many who feel an election could also bring an early end to the hearings and see Bill 60 debated instead on the campaign trail.

"If they decide to bring us down and the charter hasn't been passed, one of the consequences will be that it becomes an election issue," said Drainville.