Montreal’s executive committee announced on Wednesday that the crucifix in city hall will be taken down during the building’s upcoming renovation.
On the same day the city of Montreal announced it will remove the crucifix that hangs in the council chamber at city hall, Quebec Premier François Legault for the first time said the provincial government may remove the crucifix from the National Assembly in Quebec City.
It is a reversal of a position the government has held for months. Legault repeatedly maintained that the crucifix, which has been affixed above the Speaker’s chair in the National Assembly since 1936, would stay because the government considers it a historic artifact and not a religious symbol.
The public display of the crucifix in government buildings has been part of the debate over religious symbols in Quebec. Some argue there is a contradiction between the province forbidding public servants from wearing visible religious symbols such as the hijab or kippa while also keeping a crucifix displayed in the National Assembly.
In Montreal, executive-committee member Laurence Lavigne-Lalonde, responsible for democracy and governance, announced the crucifix’s removal from council chamber during Wednesday’s executive-committee meeting.
The administration will move out of city hall on April 15 for three years while the historic building is renovated. Lavigne-Lalonde said the move was a good opportunity to remove the crucifix, in keeping with the city’s secular status.
“We have to understand that the crucifix was installed in a context, in an era that was completely different from the one we live in today,” she said.
The crucifix was installed in 1937 at the initiative of alderman Joseph-Émile Dubreuil, a member of Montreal city council from 1932-1954 and later a Liberal member of the Quebec Legislative Assembly.
The goal was to remind councillors of the sworn oath they had taken before God, Lavigne Lalonde said.
“Now we live in a society that has evolved enormously and is represented by institutions that are democratic and that must be secular, neutral and open to all citizens,” she said.
She acknowledged that the crucifix has cultural and historical significance and said that it would eventually be displayed in a museum setting, along with other artifacts from the city’s collection, when it moves back into city hall at 275 Notre-Dame St. in three years.
“So when we go back to the renovated town hall, there will be a museum space where these elements can be highlighted where we can contextualize them and they will also be accessible to all Montrealers and other visitors,” she said.
In 1987, the city replaced the prayer at the beginning of council meetings with a moment of silence.
There was talk of removing the crucifix when city hall was last renovated, in 1992, but it did not happen.
In 2002, the city discussed setting up a committee to study the issue, but that didn’t happen either, Lavigne Lalonde said.
“What we have done today is that we have just closed this chapter of our history but with the objective of highlighting this important part of our history and also reaffirming the secular character of our institution,” she said.
After saying he respects Montreal’s decision on the issue, Legault opened the door to removing the crucifix in the National Assembly.
“Listen, everyone has to compromise,” Legault said. “We will look at the positions of different persons at caucus.”
Asked directly if the removal of the crucifix is part of the current debate over the Coaltion Avenir Québec government’s secularism bill, Legault said the subject is on the table.
“Regarding our position, you know very well very soon, in the next few weeks, we will table a bill and this is part of the discussions we’re having right now. There are good arguments (for leaving the crucifix in place), and some arguments against,” Legault said.
“Right now we have a debate. We have to find a compromise, same thing with the grandfather clause.”
But Legault said the government has made no decision on the idea of introducing a clause in the soon-to-be tabled secularism bill allowing existing public sector employees in positions of authority to wear symbols.
“I say we still have discussions,” Legault said. “Nothing is decided. I ask you to be patient.”
But at about the same time in another part of the legislature, Immigration, Diversity and Inclusiveness Minister Simon Join-Barrette said the government’s position on the crucifix has not changed.
“We take notice of the the City of Montreal’s decision,” Jolin-Barrette told reporters. “Montreal takes its own decisions. We take our own decisions. The crucifix is there. For us it was always a heritage symbol, a historic symbol like other religious symbols in the blue room.”