Quebec’s highest court on Monday began hearing appeals on the constitutionality of the province’s secularism law, which forbids certain public sector workers — including teachers and police officers — from wearing religious symbols on the job.
Both the Quebec government and groups opposing the law are challenging an April 2021 court decision that largely upheld the controversial legislation but struck down provisions relating to English-language school boards and a ban on face coverings for members of the provincial legislature.
The hearings began Monday with arguments against the government’s pre-emptive use of the so-called notwithstanding clause, which shields Bill 21 from most court challenges over violations of fundamental rights, such as freedom of expression and freedom of religion.
Parties to the court challenge, including the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, told reporters Monday morning that they would head to the Supreme Court of Canada should this appeal fail.
“This law has had a particularly nefarious effect on Muslim women, Sikhs, and Jewish people who choose to wear religious symbols that represent their faith,” said Laura Berger, a lawyer with the CCLA.
A Superior Court justice ruled last year that Bill 21 has “serious and negative” impacts on people who wear religious symbols but is largely legal and does not violate the Constitution.
The groups opposing the law filed arguments in December saying the bill, which forbids religious symbols for public sector workers deemed to be in positions of authority, goes against Canada’s constitutional architecture and infringes on federal jurisdiction.
“By thus excluding a group of people from several spheres of society because of their religion in an attempt to ‘protect’ a certain vision of social peace or fundamental social values, Law 21 contradicts the principle of religious inclusion stemming from our Constitution, and it represents an invalid attempt to legislate in an area of jurisdiction reserved for the federal legislator,” read the legal arguments.
The Quebec government passed Bill 21 in 2019 and has repeatedly argued the law is moderate and supported by a majority of Quebecers.
In his 2021 decision, Justice Marc-André Blanchard acknowledged that the law has “cruel” and “dehumanizing” consequences for those who wear religious symbols, many of whom would no longer be able to seek out new jobs in the public service without compromising their beliefs.
He noted the law “negatively impacts Muslim women first and foremost” and violates their freedom of expression and religion. But he ruled the law was allowed to stand because of the government’s invocation of the notwithstanding clause.
Blanchard, however, struck down a portion of the law that applies to English school boards, as well as a section that banned members of the provincial legislature from wearing face coverings.
The Quebec government is appealing those aspects of the ruling.
The federal government has said it is prepared to join the legal challenge if it eventually ends up in the Supreme Court of Canada.
Marisela Amador, The Canadian Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 7, 2022.
— With files from Morgan Lowrie