Quebec's Human Rights Commission says many of the restrictions on religion the Parti Quebecois government is proposing in its Charter of Quebec Values would be a violation of fundamental human rights.

The Human Rights Commission looked at the recent proposals outlined by Democratic Institutions Minister Bernard Drainville as he prepares the Charter of Quebec Values, and found they fly in the face of the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms adopted by Quebec in 1975.

"The government's proposals are cause for serious concern. They represent a clear break with the text of the Charter," said Human Rights Commission president Jacques Fremont.

The Commission said it does not normally speak on government proposals, but said in this case the proposed Charter of Quebec Values is so divisive, and so clearly in violation of current law, it felt it had no choice.

Wouldn't hold up in court

The Human Rights Commission said that the PQ proposal is a blatantly discriminatory act that would not hold up to any court challenge without resorting to the notwithstanding clause.

"It doesn't fly legally," said Fremont, who added that many lawyers have already begun preparing legal challenges should it ever become law.

He also said the proposed Charter of Quebec Values is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of state neutrality.

In its statement, the Commission says it is wrong to assume that someone wearing a religious symbol is not acting in a fair and unprejudiced manner, and it is wrong to assume that wearing a symbol means someone is attempting to convert others to their religion.

"Wearing religious signs is profound for those people who choose it, are part of their identity," said Fremont.

The Commission says that the PQ proposal to ban religious symbols in the workplace would violate the right to freedom of religion, and would infringe on freedom of expression and access to employment.

"The obligation of the state neutrality cannot deny people's identities and their right to their dignity and identity. It's part of the freedom of expression. It's part of the freedom of religion," he said.

Fremont also noted that the provincial human rights charter could be amended by a simple majority vote in the National Assembly.

Drainville, not surprisingly, disagreed with Fremont's views on the proposed legislation.

“They’re proposing the status quo and we think the status quo is not working, so we don’t have the same reading on the current reality,” Drainville told CTV Montreal. “We think the charter (of rights and freedoms) will be stronger if the equality between men and women is affirmed.”

The Liberal leader continued to criticize the PQ on the issue Thursday, pointing out that such a proposal is rare in the province.

“We have not seen this level of infringement, of threat, to our fundamental freedoms for a long time in Quebec,” said Liberal leader Philippe Couillard.

Gender equality

Drainville, Premier Pauline Marois, and many Charter supporters insist that a revision of Quebec's human rights laws is necessary to ensure the equality of the sexes, and to make gender equality superior to all other legal freedoms.

The Human Rights Commission points out that the Charter, in force for nearly 40 years, already enshrines gender equality, and that this was reinforced with Section 50.1 in 2008.

It also says making reasonable accommodation judgements based on vague concepts such as 'shared values' and 'core community values' would be impossible.

Drainville presented an outline of the Charter of Quebec Values in September, and has solicited comments from the public while drafting legislation. One possibility suggested is to alter Quebec's Charter of Human Rights to make the right to gender equality more important than other rights, including the right to freedom of religion.

Since the Charter of Quebec Values was proposed there has been a firestorm of comments and controversy in Quebec, with Charter supporters being branded as Islamophobic, and Charter opponents called misogynists who have been duped by religious fundamentalists.

Opinions are fixed

Political analyst Jean Lapierre said the Commission's ruling is a devastating judgement, but figures it's not likely to change anyone's opinion on the Charter of Values.

"Legally this is the biggest blow to the Charter," said Lapierre, pointing out the PQ proposal is "a frontal attack. This is the worst attack [on human rights] since it was voted on in 1975."

Don Macpherson agreed, saying the Human Rights Commission carries a significant amount of legal weight.

"They've raised the stakes. They've turned the debate into a debate on a question of principle... and also turned it into a test of Quebec's commitment to fundamental rigths and freedoms," he said.

However he was uncertain which would matter more: the legal opinion, or the impact of Quebec's 'Oprah', Janette Bertrand.

"Is it going to have as much impact on public opinion as say, the letter by the Janettes," that appeared in newspapers this week.

Lapierre said Les Janette, especially Denise Filiatreault, had extremely weak arguments that discredited the pro-Values side.

"Denise Filiatreault killed her credibility when she said that [hijab-wearing women] were crazy," said Lapierre.

This week, after signing the open letter by Les Janette, Filiatreault cursed in disbelief when an interviewer said that islamic women choose to wear a hijab.

Regardless of whether the Charter of Quebec Values is introduced as possible legislation, Macpherson said that the PQ has failed in its true goal of using the 'Values' proposal to gain popular support among the public.

"You can see this in the polls," said Macpherson. "The PQ was hoping this was going to pull them into majority territory but it's running out of steam... short of majority territory for the PQ."