Archbishop Pierre-André Fournier
QUEBEC CITY – Quebec's Catholic bishops warn the Charter of Quebec Values could have "heavy consequences" and represents a "crucial" stage in history for the people of the province.
The charter would require all employees in the public sector – from health care, to education, the public service and the judiciary – to avoid wearing any religious clothing, headgear, large crucifixes or other jewelry that identify their faith.
Bill 60 is now known as a Charter Affirming the Values of Secularism and the Religious Neutrality of the State, as well as the Equality of Men and Women, and the Framing of Accommodation Requests.
"There does not seem to be any need, except in a few cases, to restrict the rights and freedoms of public employees regarding the wearing of religious symbols," said Archbishop Pierre-Andre Fournier of Rimouski, president of the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Quebec (AECQ).
"What's important is their competence, their welcome and their respect," Fournier said in response to the tabling of Bill 60 in the Quebec National Assembly Nov. 7.
The only requirement needed concerns the importance of uncovering the face to provide or receive public services, he said.
Fournier said it is reasonable for the state to provide legal guidelines for requests for religious accommodation. Clarification is needed to avoid "unnecessarily distressing" situations.
In light of Quebec current social and cultural context, it's also reasonable for state and municipal institutions to be secular, the archbishop said.
Fournier described separation as a healthy distinction between the religious and political domains.
But on the spiritual and religious level, people are free to believe or not believe, he said. "This is fundamental."
Religious neutrality means the state has no preference in the matter: no official religion, but no official atheism either, Fournier said.
If the state is really neutral, it will take steps to ensure that people can live and express their faith freely, he said. That is the state's duty.
Neutrality and secularism should not remove religion from the public square, but create an environment where every person has freedom of conscience and religion, he said.
Fournier said many collaborative efforts between municipalities and parishes that benefit everyone could be jeopardized, such as the sharing of local church buildings.
It would be sad, he said, if the meaning of neutrality is misunderstood or the secular character of public institutions is interpreted "excessively" so these collaborations, that increase the capacity for mutual aid, solidarity and creativity in local communities, are slowed or even blocked.
As for the crucifix in the Quebec National Assembly, Fournier noted a vote by elected officials put it there and the decision to remove it remains with them.
If it is democratically decided to remove the crucifix, the AECQ will "respect their decision," he said.
But contrary to the view put forward by proponents of Bill 60 that the crucifix merely represents part of Quebec's historical patrimony, Fournier said: "The crucifix is a representation of the ultimate act of love, that of Christ giving his life for the salvation of the world."
"It is revered by millions of Christians of all nations, and by a big majority of Quebecers," he said. It is not an object for a museum or one element of past heritage. It is a fundamental symbol of the Catholic faith.