MONTREAL – The Jewish General Hospital opened in 1934, a time when Jewish patients and doctors were shunned by other Montreal hospitals. From Day 1, it was open to all, regardless of religion, race or colour.

Today, it’s staff is ethnically, racially and religiously perse, reflecting its locale – Côte-des-Neiges, one of Canada’s most multicultural neighbourhoods.

On Wednesday, in a rare stance amid the institutional silence so far, the Jewish denounced a provincial proposal to ban religious symbols among public employees.

“Many of our employees are quite concerned,” said Glenn Nashen, the hospital’s director of public affairs. “Many wear various kinds of religious or cultural garb and they feel personally under attack and perhaps undervalued for the very important work that they do.”

The hospital “felt it was important to make a statement that what counts, what’s important, is the professional competency of the physician, not the choice of clothing that may reflect their religious beliefs,” Nashen said.

In the statement, issued late Wednesday afternoon, the hospital said “any individual is entitled to employment in a hospital setting, regardless of whether or not his or her clothing includes an overt religious symbol.”

Under a proposal put forward Tuesday by the Parti Québécois government, public employees such as hospital workers would be barred from wearing “conspicuous religious symbols” such as the Muslim hijab, Jewish kippah and Sikh turban.

Nashen said that “as long as services are offered with professional competence, courtesy and respect, the recipients’ perceptions should not override the freedom of religion and the freedom of expression of hospital employees.”

The government has said institutions could be granted five-year exemptions from restrictions on head coverings. But it’s unclear whether they would be temporary exemptions to give hospitals time to adapt, Nashen said.

“We’re not asking for time to conform. We’re very resolute in the fact that the charter is just wrong.”

And the exemptions would not solve the problem anyway, Nashen said.

“Many of our physicians are cross-appointed. They’re teaching at McGill, they’re working at the CHUM, they’re working at St. Mary’s,” he said.

“The sheer logistics of it — one might be permitted to be covered in one place and not in another. It just creates an almost unenforceable type of situation. We want to focus on providing superiour health care rather than taking care of logistical, bureaucratic and technical issues .”

Patients arrive at the Jewish “with only one thought in mind: to receive treatment and care of the highest quality,” Nashen said.

The hospital receives “no complaints about the religious or cultural apparel of its staff,” he said.

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