NEW YORK — When the premier of Quebec visited the governor of California earlier this week, he casually mentioned that all French Canadians are Catholic — a statement that has embroiled him in controversy back at home.

François Legault, who has served as premier since 2018, made the comments during small talk with Governor Gavin Newsom during an official visit to California’s capital, Sacramento, when he referenced Newsom’s Irish roots, saying they both share in common their Catholic heritage.

He then went on to universalize it, saying all French Canadians are Catholic, prompting the leader of Quebec’s opposition party to call the moment “embarrassing” and a betrayal of Quebec’s commitment to secularism.

Legault briefly responded to the controversy in a post on Twitter, saying, “Of course, I was talking about our common origins, the Irish and the French Catholics.”

According to a 2011 census, around 75 percent of the population in Quebec identify as Catholic, although that is a drop from the 83 percent recorded in 2001. However, Quebec has gone through a massive secularization since the 1960s, and only about 10 percent of the province’s population are regular churchgoers.

The premier’s visit’s stated purpose was to discuss the “importance of continued subnational collaboration between Quebec and California on matters of mutual concern.”

The conversation between Legault and Newsom took place during a photo-op. In response to the premier’s comments, Newsom said that there is “good and bad” that comes with being an Irish Catholic. Legault then mentioned that the two could discuss “religious signs,” — a suggestion Newsom struck down noting he knew it was a hot button issue in Canada.

“That’s a whole issue for you guys. I don’t want to get into that,” Newsom said.

Earlier this year, Quebec enacted new legislation — known as “Bill 21” — which bans public workers from wearing religious symbols. A range of religious leaders has decried the legislation as an affront to religious liberty.

The Quebec Assembly of Catholic Bishops said it feared Bill 21 “will nourish fear and intolerance, rather than contribute to social peace.”

“We believe that it’s better to fight prejudices and fear for the other in a rational way, by educating people about the diversity of religious, spiritual and cultural experiences and traditions, rather than by prohibitions,” the bishops continued.

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Similarly, the National Council of Canadian Muslims said the bill “legalized discrimination on the basis of religion,” and vowed to mount a legal challenge to the legislation.

Earlier this week, Quebec’s Court of Appeals ruled against suspending sections of the province’s secularism law that had been challenged.

In February 2018, Archbishop Christian Lépine of Montreal, spoke to Crux about an earlier version of the bill saying that while neutrality may be the point of the law, that the purpose of neutrality is misunderstood.

“If you are a government official or civil servant, you might say that we are serving the goal of neutrality by excluding certain signs. But, in my view, I think neutrality would be better served by saying that everyone, along with their particular signs of belief, is welcome. In which case, pluralism becomes visible; one can see that we’re a pluralistic society.”

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“However, if you say we’re a pluralistic society but certain visible signs are not allowed, then pluralism becomes invisible,” he continued. “I don’t believe in a neutrality that excludes people.”

Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212 

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