File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS The Quebec government insists that the law passed Sunday banning religious symbols for teachers, police officers and other public servants in positions of authority takes effect immediately.

Quebec’s biggest French school board postpones applying religious symbols law

MONTREAL — Quebec’s largest school board has voted to delay application of the province’s controversial new secularism law for at least a year to allow for consultations with parents, unions and other stakeholders on how to go about enforcing it.

But the Quebec government insists that the law passed Sunday banning religious symbols for teachers, police officers and other public servants in positions of authority takes effect immediately.

Premier Francois Legault told reporters in Quebec City on Thursday he is confident the school board would fall in line.

“The law was adopted legitimately, and we will apply the law,” Legault said. “We’ve already granted acquired rights.”

In a motion passed Wednesday, the Commission scolaire de Montreal outlined plans for consultations with governing boards, parents’ committees, unions and various associations to determine what changes need to be made to board policies to respect the law.

Catherine Harel-Bourdon, the board chairwoman and an outspoken critic of the new law, told reporters Thursday it is clear the law will need to be applied, but the board is hoping the government understands the issues with application.

The board has 191 schools and nearly 17,000 employees and will need to train hundreds of managers to enforce the law and avoid having it applied unevenly in different schools, she said.

Shortly before the vote Sunday night, the government made amendments to the bill providing for inspectors to ensure the new law is applied and specifying that employees who flout the law risk disciplinary measures. The amendments led one Liberal critic to accuse the government of creating a “secularism police.”

The school board said the system puts a “tremendous burden” on managers who, according to the amendments, risk reprisals if they do not comply with the law adequately and consistently.

“The big problem is not having a standard, an application model so that everyone goes with their own understanding of things, and if it’s different from school to school, we’ll have a big problem and legal challenges that are very costly,” she said.

Teachers and principals hired after March 28 — the date the bill was tabled — are prohibited from wearing religious symbols on the job. Others benefit from a grandfather clause, as long as they don’t switch institutions or positions.

A spokesman for the English Montreal School Board noted that before the bill was even tabled the board voted not to implement the planned restrictions on religious symbols. He said the board will likely discuss the matter at a meeting next week.

Opposition to the secularism law has increased since it was passed on Sunday. On Wednesday, McGill University’s faculty of education issued a statement saying the secularism law goes against the faculty’s inclusive values.

“Bill 21 suggests to a portion of our students that they are not welcome in public schools because of their religious cultural practices,” faculty dean Dilson E. Rassier wrote. ”McGill University’s faculty of education is a place that upholds fundamental academic freedoms and represents a richly diverse community. As such, we will continue to support our students in their pursuits to become the best teachers and educators they can be.”

A legal challenge of Bill 21 — initially scheduled to be heard Thursday in a Montreal courtroom — seeks an immediate judicial stay on the sections of the law that prohibit public sector employees from wearing religious symbols at work and the provision that requires people to give or receive state services with their faces uncovered.

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