"We must distinguish between secularism and our heritage," Quebec Premier François Legault wrote on Twitter, defending himself a few minutes before noon on Monday for a tweet published five hours earlier in which he seemed to romanticize Catholicism while his government preaches secularism.

Legault's Easter break came to an abrupt end Monday morning when one of his tweets sparked backlash online. 

"Catholicism has also given us a culture of solidarity that distinguishes us on a continental scale," Legault wrote, sharing a column by Mathieu Bock-Côté published on the Journal de Montréal website.

The tweet in question is a quote from the column.

The message was posted just before 6:30 a.m. on Monday morning and was seen by more than 238,000 users of the social network five hours later. The message had been shared or reposted nearly 250 times and received nearly 500 responses, most of which were negative.

An employee in the premier's Office, Martin Plante, came to Legault's defence a few minutes after his release.

"Secularism in no way implies an obligation to deny our heritage, nor a duty to erase our religious heritage. We can be proud of it, while defending the secularism of the state," he tweeted.

Legault's message sparked a strong reaction Monday morning, including several members of the political class, who came out of their Easter break to criticize what they consider a lack of restraint on the part of the premier.

"So, secularism, according to him, is simply not meant to be part of the heritage and is certainly not part of it today!" chirped former Liberal minister Gaétan Barrette.

Liberal MNA and Official Opposition Education Critic Marwah Rizqy called out the premier, reminding him of his "duty of reserve and neutrality as premier of all Quebecers in our secular state."

"Mr. Premier, we all sometimes make a tweet that we regret. Not many people will mind if you remove this one before it goes into a spin," she posted mid-morning.

The post was shared by her colleague from Westmount-Saint-Louis, Jennifer Maccarone, and then by former Liberal minister Christine St-Pierre, who also criticized the premier.

"Ask yourself, Mr. Legault, about the woman-man equality within Catholicism! It seems to me that there is food for thought," she wrote.

Gregory Kelley, Liberal MNA for Jacques-Cartier, simply shared the premier's tweet with the words "But, I'm not Catholic" and a gif from the movie Happy Gilmore in which the main character is told, in English: "better luck next year."

The Liberal MNA for Nelligan, Monsef Derraji, tweeted, "a premier who supposedly advocates the secularism of the state."

Former Bloc Québécois and Québec Solidaire candidate Shophika Vaithyanathasarma denounced the premier's variable-geometry secularism, which "draws this line between state and religion only when it's not Catholic. Secularism when it suits us."

Ex-member of the federal Liberal caucus in Gatineau, Françoise Boivin, recalled that "Catholicism has also engendered a culture of gender inequality in our country. What is said and done in the name of 'religions'!" she concluded.

"Why does he legitimize a polemicist who propagates such dangerous ideas?" asked Quebec Solidaire Maurice Richard MNA Haroun Bouazzi, finding it "shocking that the premier still praises the extreme right-wing thinking of Mr. Bock-Côté who, last week, defended the fascist theory of the Great Replacement without any nuance."

Many internet users also reacted negatively to the premier's message, which comes just days after Education Minister Bernard Drainville called some schools to order by banning them from setting up rooms for prayer in school.

The national assembly unanimously adopted a motion on the subject.

Businessman Mitch Garber said that "we have lived in a secular society for many years, with freedom of religion. The Church, and no other religion, has had any influence on our children, courts or police. Those days are long gone. And it's not because of Bill 21."

The president of the Association des économistes québécois, Marc Lévesque, shared the premier's tweet, describing him as the "poor leader of the Quebec state and defender of its secularism, who publicly praises the Catholic religion."

Comedian Sugar Sammy quipped about the controversy, tweeting that "secularism is important, except once on Twitter."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on April 10, 2023.