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FILE PHOTO: Women in traditional garb gather to protest against Quebec's proposed Charter of Values in Montreal, September 14, 2013. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By Kevin Dougherty
QUEBEC CITY, Quebec (Reuters) - Quebec will ban face coverings for people giving or receiving provincial government services under a law passed on Wednesday that rights groups have criticised as marginalising Muslim women in the mainly French-speaking Canadian province.
While the law, which takes effect by July 1, 2018, does not specify which face coverings are prohibited, the debate has largely focussed on the niqab worn by some Muslim women, which covers everything but the eyes.
People affected by the law would include public-sector employees such as teachers, police officers, hospital and daycare workers.
Like France, which passed a ban on veils, crosses and other religious symbols in schools in 2004, Quebec has struggled to reconcile its secular identity with a growing Muslim population, many of them North African emigrants.
"We are just saying that for reasons linked to communication, identification and safety, public services should be given and received with an open face," Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard told reporters in the province's National Assembly.
"We are in a free and democratic society. You speak to me, I should see your face, and you should see mine. It's as simple as that," he said.
The National Council of Canadian Muslims said it was deeply concerned by the law's passage and was looking at its legal options.
"This legislation is an unjustified infringement of religious freedoms," said executive director Ihsaan Gardee.
The law allows for exemptions under certain circumstances, although it did not provide details. Regulations setting out how the new law will be enforced are yet to come.
Asked in the federal parliament whether he would challenge the law, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who represents a Montreal district, said he would continue to ensure all Canadians are protected by the country's charter of rights and freedoms, "while respecting the choices that different legislative assemblies can make."
France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Bulgaria and the German state of Bavaria have imposed restrictions on the wearing of full-face veils in public places, with Denmark on track to set its own ban.
Right-wing extremist groups and some local French-speaking media in recent years have targeted Quebec's Muslims as part of a broader debate on the accommodation of religious and cultural minorities in the province.
Incidents of Islamophobia have increased in Quebec in recent years. In January, six people were killed in a shooting at a Quebec City mosque. A French-Canadian university student has been charged as the sole suspect.
(Reporting by Kevin Dougherty; Writing by Leah Schnurr; Editing by Peter Cooney)