Court of Appeal upholds controversial Quebec secularism law

1 March 2024
Court of Appeal upholds controversial Quebec secularism law

Civil liberties groups argued law discriminates against Muslim women who wear head coverings.

The Quebec Court of Appeal has upheld the province’s controversial secularism law in its entirety, in a ruling on challenges to the law’s constitutionality released Thursday afternoon.

The heavily anticipated judgment is 300-pages long and quashes a previous exception made by Superior Court Judge Marc-André Blanchard, allowing English schools to employ teachers wearing religious symbols, such as a head covering, while on the job.

A panel of Appeal Court judges heard arguments both from civil liberties groups challenging the law, as well as from the government, in November 2022.

Premier François Legault’s government had appealed the Superior Court decision, rendered in April 2021, that upheld most of the law but made the exception for English schools.

His government had said the exception created an unfair distinction between francophone and anglophone schools.

More to come.

The Quebec Court of Appeal will release its long-awaited decision this afternoon on the province’s secularism law, Bill 21.

The law, which has been in place for five years, prevents a number of civil servants — including teachers and police officers — from wearing religious symbols while on the job.

Several groups have challenged the law’s constitutionality. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the National Council of Canadian Muslims were among those arguing Bill 21 discriminates on the basis of religion.

Arguments in the Court of Appeal case were heard by a panel of judges a year and a half ago. At the time, the panel of judges hinted that the case hinges on whether the bill disproportionately discriminates against Muslim women who wear the hijab.

“That’s a tough question, but it’s really at the centre of our preoccupations and that’s why we asked it,” Justice Yves-Marie Morissette said, as the panel of three judges posed some final questions to lawyers to clarify their positions in November 2022.

The judges’ decision is expected to be released at 2:15 p.m. Thursday.

A key argument of groups opposed to the law is that it discriminates on the basis of gender by disproportionately targeting Muslim women. Provincial laws that can be shown to be discriminatory on the basis of gender cannot be shielded by the notwithstanding clause.

The CAQ pre-emptively invoked the constitutional notwithstanding clause when drafting the bill to protect it against legal challenges.

The clause gives provinces the power to override portions the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms for renewable periods of five years.

“It’ll be fascinating to see what the court does with that,” said Robert Leckey, the dean of the McGill University’s faculty of law.

‘It changed my life drastically’

A Superior Court decision in April 2021 largely upheld the secularism law, but created an exception for English schools.

The law enacted under the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government in 2019 prohibits public school teachers, police officers, government lawyers and a host of other civil servants from wearing religious symbols at work.

Amrit Kaur, a teacher who is Sikh and wears a turban, left the province after the bill was passed.

“It changed my life drastically. I had to leave my home. I had to leave my family, my friends, go to a new province that I’ve never been to before, reacclimatize myself to a new curriculum, and just start from zero,” Kaur said in an interview with CBC on Wednesday.

Whatever the Court of Appeal decides, both the Quebec government and opponents of the law have said that it’s likely they’ll appeal the decision and that, ultimately, it will be the Supreme Court of Canada that will have the final word on Bill 21.

Source: cbc

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