The Quebec government has approved Bill 62, a law concerning religious neutrality that will have the largest effect on women wearing religious face coverings in the province.
Members of the National Assembly voted 66-51 to approve the legislation that states, among other things, that anyone seeking to give or receive public services must have their face uncovered – that includes municipalities and public transit agencies.
It means a Muslim woman wearing a niqab or a burka has to remove her face covering during a bus ride.
It's estimated that between 50 and 100 women in Quebec wear a burka or niqab that covers their face.
“We consider that this bill is solid, is strong. It's a bill that's respectful of civil rights,” said Justice Minister Stephanie Vallée
Vallée said it will affect people wearing scarves, bandanas, and large sunglasses, as well as burkas or niqabs.
The bill is the Liberal government's response to the Bouchard-Taylor report on religious accommodation. Nearly 10 years old, ever since it was released, Quebec politicians have struggled to determine how to put the issue to rest.
After the PQ's Charter of Values failed, the Liberals came up with Bill 62.
Opposition parties felt the bill was not strong enough, and tried to amend the bill to ban all religious symbols among public servants, and to remove the crucifix from the National Assembly.
“We do believe, like it was written in the Bouchard Taylor Commission, that the person who works for that state in an authority position, like a police man, should not wear any religious signs,” said PQ secularism critic Agnes Maltais.
Nathalie Roy of the Coalition Avenir Quebec said that her party favours more a more wide-sweeping ban on religious symbols.
"A CAQ government would revoke Bill 62 and replace it with a Charter of Secularity," said Roy. “It's not a good bill, it's unclear and it opens the door to a lot of interpretations.”
Quebec solidaire also voted against the bill, arguing the crucifix hanging above the speaker's chair in the National Assembly should be removed.
The crucifix is protected under the law because the government considers it part of Quebec's cultural heritage.
Premier Philippe Couillard said he expects the new law will be challenged in court since it is at the limit of what is permitted under the Canadian constitution.
"There is always in every piece of legislation a risk of it being contested by those that don't agree with it,” said Vallée. "We were very careful for the whole process, to be respectful of the rights that are protected in the Charter."
Guidelines on how the law will be applied and enforced by civil servants will be established in the months to come, according to Vallée.
Under the law, religious accommodations can be granted...but only under certain criteria...including respecting equality between men and women.
As for specific guidelines on how to apply the law...those won't be coming for another several months, after a consultation period...leaving many wondering what will happen in the meantime.