Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff is defending the Quebec government's move to require Muslim women or others who wear face coverings such as niqabs to remove them if they want to work in the public sector or do business with government officials.

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Egyptian-born Naïma Atef Amed of Montreal cites religious reasons for wearing the niqab, a style of headwear that covers the whole body, leaving only the eyes exposed. ((CBC))

Speaking at the start of his party's weekend thinkers' conference on Friday, Ignatieff said he thinks the province's legislation tabled this week is trying to strike a "good Canadian balance" between reasonable accommodation and respect for religious freedom. 

"There is always a balance we must keep," he said.

Bill 94, tabled by Quebec Justice Minister Kathleen Weil, lays out the accommodations public institutions can make to employees or to the public.

The proposed legislation defines a reasonable request as one that does not create any undue hardship or expense for the state. For example, a woman who insists on being served by a female civil servant for religious reasons would have to wait in line until one was available.

By tabling the controversial law, the government is responding to a debate that has been raging since 2006.

In 2007, the province launched the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on issues of reasonable accommodation following concerns over reports that members of religious and cultural communities were making special requests at public institutions.

More recently, the debate was stirred up by an Egyptian woman who was expelled from provincially funded French-language classes after she refused to remove her niqab — a style of veil that leaves only the eyes exposed.