MONTREAL - Supporters of Quebec's charter of values numbered in the hundreds as they descended on downtown Montreal calling for a secular state and urging the government to go forward with its plan to push state employees to leave their religious garb at home.
The Parti Quebecois government formally announced its plan earlier this month, one that would prohibit state employees from wearing overt religious symbols. That would include everyone from judges and police officers to daycare and health care workers and school teachers.
Several hundred gathered in a Montreal square on Sunday and marched to voice their support for the Parti Quebecois' controversial secular plan for public sector employees.
"If we don't have religious symbols, I think it's easier to accept each other for all societies," said Robert Carrier, one of those on hand.
Polls commissioned in recent weeks have suggested a deep divide among Quebecers over the controversial charter. Those same polls have also suggested that support for it has been dropping.
But those who gathered under a light rain on Sunday said it's necessary to have such rules to be able to live together. They argue that religion is creeping into everyday Quebec society and it causes strife between citizens.
Daphne Poirier said she has friends who are Jewish and Arab and they all have different views on their own religion — some are more observant while others have a more lax attitude. In the end, it has little impact on her personal dealings with them.
"My friendship goes beyond their system of values," said Poirier, a translator who defines herself as an atheist. She says she doesn't push her beliefs on anyone and doesn't think others should be able to on her.
"I respect everybody and what they do when they go to the synagogue or when they go to a mosque, that's their (business)," she said. "But I don't think it belongs in the public space."
Sunday's rally was the first one in favour of the charter and came on the heels an anti-charter rally in the provincial capital on Saturday and a significantly larger anti-charter march in Montreal a little over a week ago.
Marchers carried cutout fleur-de-lis and Quebec flags. They carried signs that read "'we're born naked and everything else is superfluous" and "secularism that's open to closed religions doesn't work."
The group included very few visible minorities.
But it also included those who feel the charter doesn't go far enough, namely when it comes to the cross that hangs in the Quebec legislature above the Speaker's chair. That one was spared under the PQ plan, with the reason that they are key to Quebec's cultural history.
"If we really want to separate church and religion, then we have to go all the way and the cross at the national assembly doesn't have its place (today)," said Olivier Chantraine, who said he's much more in favour of the charter than opposed, although he has issues with the way it's being proposed.
"For me the freedom of religion should not surpass liberty of expression and if we can't have political badges at work, why should we be allowed religious symbols?," Chantraine said. "It should be the same for everyone."
And that's why the crucifix should go from the legislature, Chantraine added, calling it hypocritical to keep the crucifix. "That's how it can be seen as racist and xenophobic," he added.
The minority PQ government is expected to table the charter this fall after hearing from the public and has continued to defend it publicly in the last week.
But the charter is unlikely to pass in its current form. The opposition Liberals are against the charter altogether and the second opposition party that has the swing vote in legislature, the Coalition, has denounced it as too radical.
The Coalition has offered to endorse a watered-down version, but the PQ has suggested it will listen to public input and might negotiate with opposition parties after it has been tabled.
Bernard Drainville, the minister in charge of the charter, said he expected the debate to last weeks and hoped for civilized, constructive debate.
That was echoed by another demonstrator, who called for an end to what he calls "chartophobia."
"Yes, the state can make compromises and religions should too," said Fabrice St-Pierre. "From my end, I'm in favour of the ban ... I don't think it's excessive to ask people to remove religious symbols while they work for the state."
Organizers said they're pleased with the turnout, given the event was organized at the last minute using social media. They expect a loud pro-charter movement to take shape in the coming weeks.
"It's just the beginning, continue the debate!," the crowd chanted to end the march.
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