As six days of parliamentary hearings began on Quebec's latest legislation to ban certain groups from visibly demonstrating their religious faith, the MNA spearheading the bill said he was simply obeying the will of the masses.

Immigration and Diversity Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette said that more than a decade of public debate was enough, and that the province had reached a point where it was necessary to formally define what was and was not permitted.

Jolin-Barrette explained why Bill 21 is needed to ban teachers, police officers, court workers and many other civil servants, including certain MNAs, from wearing symbols of their religion.

"Quebec has reached a point where it needs to formally declare that the state and religion are separate," said Jolin-Barrette.

The CAQ and the Parti Quebecois favour restrictions on religious symbols including the hijab, kippa, turban and cross, while the two other parties with seats in the National Assembly -- the Liberals and Quebec solidaire -- are opposed.


Religious groups denied chance to speak

Religious groups were denied the chance to present their opposition to Bill 21 at the public hearings.

Members from the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the Montreal Board of Rabbis, the United Church of Canada, and the World Sikh Organization said the provincial government refused to hear their applications.

"It was mentioned religious groups would not be invited, so it was kind of stated at the beginning," said Reverend Paula Kline of the United Church of Canada.

"It's very disappointing for all of us in the interfaith community and it's very worrisome as well that these voices are not being heard."

Rabbi Avi Finegold said that it appears the CAQ government does not want to hear people opposed to the bill, unlike previous governments.

"A genuine public consultation clearly does not look like this," said Rabbi Finegold.

"It clearly looks a lot more detailed, a lot more involved. It allows people to petition the government to come and present, anybody who wants, anybody who feels they are going to be affected, rather than doing a select group of individuals who they think is going to give them the best message possible that will allow them to pass their law."

Sara Abou-Bakr of the National Council of Canadian Muslims said it creates the impression the government does not believe she is equal to any other Quebecer.

"Sorry, your family has lived here since the 1960s, you were born and raised here as a Quebecer, you've done all you have to do as a citizen, you've done your education, you've done all your duties and responsibilities as a Quebec citizen, yet we have decided we don't want to listen to you, and whatever we dictate to you in terms of what to wear, what not to wear, you have to listen," said Abou-Bakr.

Several other groups, including the Quebec Bar Association and multiple police associations, withdrew their application to speak at the hearings.

Many said they did not believe the provincial government was willing to listen.


Supporters were first to speak

Most of the 36 groups and individuals speaking at the hearings are fervent supporters of the legislation

Among the first speakers were former Parti Quebecois candidates Djemila Benhabib and Louise Mailloux.

Mailloux has said that baptism is a form of rape, and apologized after repeatedly stating the falsehood that kosher food is used to fund religious wars.

Benhabib, a journalist who is known for her outspoken criticism of Islam, immigrated to Quebec from Algeria after her family was threatened by the Islamic Front for Armed Jihad. In 2016 she won a defamation lawsuit after writing that a Montreal school resembled an indoctrination camp.

At the hearing, Benhabib called the hijab "sexist," saying it has no place in government institutions such as schools or daycares.

She asked how schools can accept sexist symbols when their mission is to promote equality between men and women.

Mailloux said the facts may not be on her side, but she said it was crucial that the relationship between students and teachers be sacred.

She also said she would prefer to do much more than ban religious symbols, but refrained from saying exactly what she would do.


Bouchard, Taylor do not support legislation

The opposition Liberals said the bill divides Quebecers and is not needed since complaints about the religion of civil servants are extremely rare.

The bill has sparked protests and counter-protests from those who support a ban, to those who say it is a clear violation of constitutional rights.

The CAQ government has admitted as much, and said it will invoke the notwithstanding clause, which is valid for five years and then legislation must be altered.

Thirty-six groups and individuals will be presenting briefs, including Charles Taylor and Gerard Bouchard -- both of whom oppose the legislation.

The two public intellectuals led province-wide public hearings about religious accommodations in 2008 recommending certain public servants not wear religious symbols on the job.

Taylor has since recanted his recommendation, while Bouchard has said that teachers should be allowed, as he recommended, to wear religious symbols.

- With a report from Giuseppe Valiante of The Canadian Press