Hundreds of Montrealers linked arms to form a human chain around the Palais de Justice on Sunday to express opposition to Bill 21, days before hearings about the legislation take place.

Canadian Council of Muslim Women spokesperson Shaheen Ashraf was among the protesters. She called Bill 21, which would ban certain public sector employees from wearing religious symbols “discriminatory, dividing and horrible.”

“It’s suppression and oppression,” she said.

Public hearings on the bill are set to begin on Tuesday. Among those set to testify is Charles Taylor, the philosopher who was co-author of a landmark report on reasonable accommodation 10 years ago.  Taylor also spoke at Sunday’s protest.

Taylor said that while he believes in secularism, Bill 21 is not the answer.

“It goes completely against what we understand as real laicite, secularism,” he said. “The government is neutral, police are neutral, the education system is neutral, but the people in them are human beings with their own lives, spiritual lives and they have this right to live it out.”

Premier Francois Legault has said he wants the bill to unite Quebecers and hopes the bill will pass by summer, but many at the rally said they won’t back down.

“When the community comes together, the government is saying they have the majority but I think it’s otherwise,” said Canadian Muslim Alliance spokesperson Musabbir Alam. “We can actually show that no, they don’t have majority support for this law.”

Nour Farhat, a lawyer who is completing a degree in criminal law said she dreams of being a prosecutor but that removing her hijab should be a personal choice, not one for the government to make.

“I don’t know what to do. It’s really a sad position that my government is putting me in,” she said. “It’s not fun that my own government, I was born here, is giving me this choice between my freedom of religion and my dreams.”

The government has said the bill will invoke the Canadian Constitution’s Notwithstanding Clause, but lawyer Gregory Bordan said there will still be legal challenges.

“I know that there certainly will be legal challenges to the bill. We’ll have to wait to see precisely the ground, but there’s a number of lawyers working very hard on ensuring there will be legal challenges.”

A day earlier a group calling itself ‘La Vague Bleue’ gathered on de Maisonneuve Blvd. to express their support for the bill. They were met by counter-protesters who accused the group of being affiliated with nationalist and extreme-right wing groups.

Police said two arrests were made during the march and counter-protest.  

Consultations on the legislation will take place over six days, starting Tuesday and ending May 16, athough many groups opposed to the bill, including the Quebec Bar Association and many police departments, have decided not to participate. 

In all 36 groups and individuals, mostly in favour of the legislation, are taking part in the hearings.