QUEBEC - Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard clarified his party's position on the values debate Tuesday, coming out in favour of allowing public-sector employees to wear religious symbols at work.
The Liberals also endorsed the religious neutrality of the state, the preservation of Quebec's religious heritage and the continued presence of the crucifix in the national assembly.
They came out, however, against the niqab and burka in government offices as well as the chador, a long garment that covers the entire body.
Couillard focused on the chador, telling a news conference the garment is quite different from head scarves that are worn daily in Quebec society.
"This garment translates a message of withdrawal of women — submission — and this is not something that, for us, is compatible with public services," he said.
The Quebec government's proposed legislation, Bill 60, would forbid public employees from wearing visible religious symbols including turbans, kippas and bigger-than-average crucifixes.
Couillard said forbidding everything would make Bill 60 inapplicable.
He unveiled the party's position less than 24 hours after the Liberals parted company with Fatima Houda-Pepin, the only Muslim woman in the legislature.
The longtime Liberal member, who supports a ban on government employees in a position of authority wearing religious symbols, left a special party caucus meeting on Monday when the Liberals adopted their position.
She declared she was excluded from caucus because she refused to accept the poaition in its entirety.
But shortly after the five-hour meeting, Couillard gave a different version of the facts, saying Houda-Pepin chose to quit the caucus.
The Liberal leader made it clear before the meeting that all members should endorse the party's position and that he would not tolerate any dissent.
Houda-Pepin, 62, told reporters she defended her convictions and would never regret that. The Liberal member for La Piniere, a Montreal south shore riding, will now sit as an Independent.
Bill 60, which was introduced last fall, has prompted a heated debate in a province where polls suggest more than half the population supports the bill.
Its proponents say it's an important plan that would increase gender equality and shield the province from what has been described as encroaching religious fundamentalism.
Critics have called the minority PQ government's project unnecessary and an attack on personal freedoms that violates the federal and Quebec charters of rights. They also say the PQ has introduced the bill as a way to distract the population from what they argue is the province's sputtering economy.