Quebec court strikes down parts of ‘religious symbols’ law

Canadian province’s Bill 21 bars some public sector workers from wearing hijab, yarmulkes and other religious symbols.

Women protest Quebec's Bill 21
Women protest against Quebec's Bill 21, which bans teachers, police, government lawyers and others in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols on the job [File: Christinne Muschi/Reuters]
Correction20 Apr 2021
An earlier version of this story said Quebec Superior Court is the highest court in Quebec. This was incorrect. The Quebec Court of Appeal is the highest court.

A court in the Canadian province of Quebec has struck down parts of a law that bars some public sector employees from wearing religious symbols such as the hijab on the job – but upheld most of the contentious legislation.

In a lengthy decision issued on Tuesday morning, Quebec Superior Court said the legislation – widely known as Bill 21 – violates parts of Canada’s constitution, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Specifically, it said the law infringes on Section 23, which guarantees minority educational rights, as well as Section 3, which outlines the right to serve in the provincial legislature.

But the decision upholds most of the legislation, which bars public sector employees in positions of authority, such as teachers and state prosecutors, from wearing religious symbols at work. That can include the hijab worn by some Muslim women, Jewish yarmulkes or Sikh turbans.

Passed in June 2019, Bill 21 has drawn widespread criticism as a violation of religious freedom, with civil rights and religious groups saying it would disproportionately harm Muslim women, who are already marginalised.

Khalid Elgazzar, vice chair of the board of directors at the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), a national advocacy group that challenged the law as unconstitutional, said the ruling makes clear there are “fundamental problems” with the law.

“Bill 21 causes serious harm. As we examine our options, we will not stop until all Quebecers are treated fairly,” Elgazzar said during a Tuesday afternoon news conference.

Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, equality programme director at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), another organisation involved in the case, said the groups would be closely reviewing the decision before determining their next steps.

The Superior Court’s decision could be appealed to the Quebec Court of Appeal, and could eventually end up before the Supreme Court of Canada.

“We had hoped today to see Bill 21 struck down in its entirely, and with that, lay to rest this gross rights violation that has been ongoing for almost two years,” Mendelsohn Aviv said during the news conference.

“This did not happen, but CCLA will not abandon those most affected by Bill 21.”

CBC News reported that Tuesday’s ruling means English-language schools in the predominantly francophone province will be exempt, while members of the legislature will be allowed to cover their faces for religious reasons.

The English Montreal School Board (EMSB), the largest English-language public school board in Quebec, which had challenged the law, said it was “elated” by the ruling.

“This legislation runs contrary to what we teach and to the culture of respect for individual rights and religious freedoms within English-language schools,” said Giuseppe Ortona, a lawyer for the EMSB, in a tweet shared by the school board.

“Moreover, a religious symbol worn by a teacher in no way affects their ability to provide quality education in a secular state, within a secular education system and in the classrooms of public schools administered by the EMSB.”

The Quebec government has already said it intends to appeal the decision, local media reported.

“Quebec laws must apply to everyone and across the territory of Quebec,” Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette said on Tuesday afternoon, as reported by Montreal daily La Presse. “There are not two Quebecs, there is only one.”

Quebec had invoked a seldom-used clause in the Charter to limit legal efforts against Bill 21, barring groups from arguing the law violated freedom of religion, among other protected rights.

The litigants in the case used other Charter provisions to argue the law was unconstitutional.

“Canada’s constitution is supposed to protect our law and democracy,” Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, equality programme director at CCLA, said in a statement last year before the Quebec Superior Court hearings.

“There is no excuse for a discriminatory law that has already caused intense harm to Muslim women and others,” she said.

Quebec has seen more than a decade of heated debates around secularism, the separation of church and state, and what officials have called the “reasonable accommodation” of religious minorities.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault has justified Bill 21 as a necessary measure to guarantee state secularism [File: Chris Wattie/Reuters]

Bill 21 is the latest effort to restrict religious symbols in the province, where the government has argued the law is a necessary measure to guarantee state secularism (laïcité, in French).

Shortly before it was passed in 2019, a poll showed 64 percent of Quebecers were in favour of restricting religious symbols in the public sphere, compared with only 27 percent against.

But critics have said the law sends a dangerous message amid an uptick in anti-Muslim sentiment in Quebec, where a gunman opened fire on a mosque in the provincial capital, Quebec City, in January 2017, killing six worshippers.

Muslim women in Quebec also have reported an uptick in harassment and violence, which they have linked to the passage of, and heated discourse around, Bill 21.

Source: Al Jazeera