Bill 21 violates right of English Quebecers to manage their education system: lawyer

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MONTREAL — When the Quebec government tells English schools they cannot hire women wearing the hijab, it violates the rights of the English-speaking minority to manage its educational institutions, a lawyer argued Tuesday in a case challenging the province's secularism law.

The law, known as Bill 21, forbids the wearing of religious symbols such as turbans, kippas and hijabs for certain employees of the state deemed to be in positions of authority, including police officers and school teachers.

Quebec Superior Court Justice Marc-Andre Blanchard, who is presiding over the trial, has set aside 14 days to hear closing arguments, which began on Monday.

Constitutional rights lawyer Julius Grey argued on behalf of the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the Quebec Community Groups Network, which are both challenging the law.

Grey invoked Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects the right of Quebec's anglophone minority to be educated in English.

Over time, jurisprudence has interpreted this right as giving management power to English schools, which Grey argued includes the right to hire whom they choose as teachers, including those who wear religious symbols.

While Bill 21 invokes the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause to shield it from most charter challenges, including those based on freedom of religion, Grey argued it can't be used to override the language-rights protections in Section 23.

Grey argued Section 23 is essential to the protection and preservation of the language and culture of the English-speaking minority in Quebec.

And included in the culture of the English-speaking community is the protection of cultural minorities, he said.

Grey also argued that Bill 21 infringes Section 28 of the charter, which provides for gender equality and isn't subject to the notwithstanding clause.

A lawyer for Amnesty International argued that the law is too vague and that it doesn't include a definition of "religious symbols."

School administrators can't all become theologians to manage their schools, Marie-Claude St-Amant said.

Like Grey, she argued that it is not the government's objective in adopting the law that is important but rather the effects of the legislation. Those are disproportionately felt by Muslim women, she said, arguing that the stated goal of the law is a pretence.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 1, 2020.

Stephanie Marin, The Canadian Press