Quebec Ponders A Ban On Religious Symbols For Public Workers

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The ruling Parti Quebecois has proposed what it calls a Charter of Values, which would prohibit people who work in public institutions from wearing religious symbols. Dr. Lawrence Rosenberg, director of the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal, Quebec, speaks with host Scott Simon about the bill.


A controversial new bill is being debated in Quebec. The ruling Parti Quebecois has proposed what they call a charter of values that has a provision that would prohibit people who work in public institutions from wearing religious symbols. This would mean that those in schools and hospitals would not be able to wear headscarves, turbans, crucifixes or kippahs, the head covering worn by some Jews.

Proponents of the bill say it would keep religion separate from the state and help ensure equality between men and women, but others say the bill would violate basic rights of religious expression. Dr. Lawrence Rosenberg is the new executive director of the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal. Dr. Rosenberg, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: And you say that if this bill passes, you will not observe it. How so?

ROSENBERG: The hospital will not do anything that would compromise the ability for us to care for our patients, which includes employing the individuals that we need to employ to care for the patients that we need to care for.

SIMON: And they would be...

ROSENBERG: There are a number of individuals who work in the building who wear hijab or wear kippah or some other article of religious symbolism or clothing and the bill as it's currently conceived would prevent these individuals from wearing those symbols or the clothing which they desire to wear.

SIMON: Well would, for example, a doctor or a nurse who wears a yarmulke - and I realize that's not the only example. You're also talking about Muslims and other groups in the hospital. Could they not simply remove it while they're on the clock?

ROSENBERG: I myself wear a kippah and I would, you know, have an issue with having to remove it.

SIMON: Dr. Rosenberg, what might you say to people who might be in favor of the law who say that a public institution has to make certain that people of all faiths are comfortable and that it should remain a visibly secular institution?

ROSENBERG: Well, I guess it comes down to how you interpret what a visibly secular or neutral - which is the word the bill uses - institution actually is. There are many institutions in Quebec because of its history and the Catholic Church going back several hundred years, that have large crucifixes either on the buildings outside or in the buildings inside. Are those conspicuous religious symbols that shouldn't be there, 'cause those are exempted in the present form of the bill?

Patients who come to this hospital choose to come here, and we have a patient population that's probably the most diverse in the country.

SIMON: You can't simply say we will do what the law is?

ROSENBERG: I don't know what the law is going to be, so I can't say we would do what the law is going to be.

SIMON: Well, I don't know what the U.S. Senate is going to pass next year, but I think I can tell you in advance if it's the law and the president signs it and the law, I will abide by it.

ROSENBERG: Well, that of course is your choice. We'll reserve judgment based on what we see it in the final version of the bill.

SIMON: Dr. Lawrence Rosenberg is executive director of the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal. Dr. Rosenberg, thanks very much for being with us.

ROSENBERG: Thank you very much.


SIMON: And you're listening to NPR News.


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