Montreal, Canada – Quebec’s new law banning face coverings when giving or receiving public services will not stand up to potential legal challenges, but the process in court could take several years, Canadian legal experts say.
“I don’t usually play prophet because it’s dangerous. You can always be wrong, but I’ve rarely felt more confident that a law would be overturned,” Montreal human rights lawyer Julius Grey told Al Jazeera.
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Passed last Wednesday in the Quebec legislature, the law, known as Bill 62, obliges Quebec public service employees and members of the public to give and receive public services with their faces uncovered. It includes municipalities and public transit agencies.
While the government has defended and justified the ban on the basis of religious neutrality and “living together”, critics say it unfairly targets Muslim women who cover their faces.
Grey said the law clearly violates freedom of religion, equality rights, and one could argue, unfettered access to healthcare.
He added that Quebec would try to justify Bill 62 under Section 1 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which states that a limitation placed by the state on individual rights must be justified in a “free and democratic society”.
He said, however, the measures are “clearly not necessary, and they’re not particularly useful at all”.
While the exact number of Muslim women who wear the niqab, a full face and body covering which usually leaves the area around the eyes uncovered, in Quebec is unknown, Grey said, “there’s only about 30 or 40 women involved”.
“They’re among the weakest member of our society … Those women are going to feel less secure asserting their autonomy by taking public transport or going to the hospital with themselves and their children,” he added.
“I think it’s a wicked law and it shouldn’t be applied.”
Rights groups and women who will be affected have told Canadian media that they are studying the law and trying to determine their next steps.
The ban could be challenged by an individual who refuses to uncover and is denied a service, setting off a legal battle that may end up in the Supreme Court.
‘No business in our wardrobe’
The government of Quebec has staunchly defended the law in the face of public protests in Montreal, the province’s largest city, and condemnations from civil rights groups and other provincial governments.
Protesters wore scarves, masks, and other items over their faces along a popular bus route that connects a multicultural, Montreal neighbourhood to the city’s downtown core on Friday to protest the law.
On Sunday, a group of Muslim women and other protesters wore niqabs, scarves and other face coverings on the Montreal metro to protest the legislation.
Shaheen Ashraf of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women (CCMW) said the law is still confusing and unclear for many people.
“People have the right to protest because they’re confused and they’re upset because they don’t like the government to interfere in the way they dress,” Ashraf told Al Jazeera.
“People keep repeating the government has no business in our wardrobe.”
She said CCMW wrote to Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard to object to the law.
“For me, what is the difference between those regimes that tell you to cover, and this regime that’s asking you to uncover?” Ashraf said.
Government clarifies law
Quebec appeared to back-peddle at least slightly on Tuesday, as Justice Minister Stephanie Vallee apologised for not clarifying the law immediately after it was passed.
The law, which immediately took effect, applies when public sector employees and members of the public need to communicate or identify themselves at the moment they give and take a public service, Vallee said during a press conference in Quebec City.
“We’re here trying to ensure that we can identify people,” she said. “These are common-sense rules that will apply.”
The law will apply during the “service provision”, Vallee said, not the “extension of the service”.
For example, a Muslim woman would need to unveil her face to board a public bus or the metro if she has a transit pass with a photo ID, as is the case for students or elderly individuals, but could cover her face again for the duration of the ride.
A woman would have unveil to talk to a doctor or a librarian, but not when in a hospital waiting room or when looking for books alone in a library.
A woman would also have to remove her face veil in a classroom when interacting with a teacher, but she might be able to wear it again when walking on school grounds or in the corridors, Vallee said.
“In a classroom, you must uncover your face. In an exam room, you must uncover your face,” she said.
“Obviously we’re counting on the cooperation of cities to be able to implement this bill harmoniously and to also ensure that we answer their specific needs,” Vallee said.
However, the Union of Quebec Municipalities said over the weekend that Bill 62 was “untenable”. Transit agencies have also raised questions about how the law could be implemented on the ground, and their employees said they do not want to be arbitrators.
Vallee said the government would consider getting a legal injunction – but would not be able to issue fines – if a municipality were to ignore the law.
“The goal is to ensure that the law is applied uniformly,” she said.
‘Unstoppable erosion’ of rights
The law comes about a year before a provincial election in Quebec and as the Liberal government faces criticism on various fronts.
Opposition parties – namely the sovereigntist Parti Quebecois and right-wing Coalition Avenir Quebec – have been pushing the Liberals to act on the issue of religious neutrality.
They voted against Bill 62 because they said it did not go far enough and they spoke out on Tuesday to condemn what they saw as the Quebec government’s softening of the provisions of the law.
According to a poll released in early October, before Bill 62 was officially passed, 87 percent of Quebecers said they supported the legislation.
The separation of church and state has long been a central question in Quebec, a French-speaking province where the Catholic Church held tremendous sway in public life for decades.
Recently, the religious accommodation of minorities has been hotly contested, and efforts to outlaw “ostentatious” religious symbols from the public sphere have been repeatedly debated.
Fo Niemi, executive director of the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations in Montreal, said if one of Quebec’s opposition parties wins the next election, “they may come up with worse, and more restrictive or more penalising, legislation” on the issue.
Niemi told Al Jazeera that respect for minority rights “doesn’t seem to be considered to be a fundamental Quebec value”, as opposed to gender equality and state secularism, which hold a revered place in public discourse.
This month, the Quebec Liberals also cancelled public consultations on systemic racism in the province, after opposition politicians and Quebecers voiced their anger at what they perceived was an exercise set up to call them racists.
A one-day hearing on immigrant unemployment will be held in December instead.
“As long as [minority rights are] not considered a fundamental value or a fundamental principle of law,” Niemi said the province would experience an “incremental and unstoppable erosion” of those rights.
“Today it’s about [the] banning of face coverings. Tomorrow it can be what?”
‘Religious exemptions’ unclear
Vallee said on Tuesday that exemptions to the law would be available for religious reasons, but guidelines for how to apply for those accommodations will only be released by next July.
Individuals will have to apply to each public agency separately to receive exemptions, the minister said.
The minister “is flip-flopping all over the map” on accommodation, Niemi said.
“Does it mean the person getting on the bus would have to ask the bus driver for permission, or how does it work? How long does it take to ask [and] how long does it take to obtain a reasonable accommodation?” he said.
Niemi said only a few dozen women wear the niqab in Quebec, which begs the question why the government felt it needed to legislate on the issue in the first place.
“Do we need to have legislation that will cover the entire province of Quebec for a ‘situation’ that is mostly in Montreal, affecting a handful of people, causing nothing divisive, nothing hurtful, nothing threatening through their conduct?” he said.
Grey added that efforts to legislate women’s dress are not isolated to Quebec, but can be seen across Europe as well.
“It’s about time we stop being concerned about these things. We’re a land where people come from all sorts of areas of the world, and the last thing we should do is tell them what to wear.”