Closing arguments begin in court challenge to Quebec secularism law

·2 min read

MONTREAL — Quebec's secularism law is so contrary to the essence of the Canadian Constitution it's as if the provincial government unilaterally amended it, the lawyer for a woman challenging the law argued Monday.

Lawyers representing individuals and groups seeking to have the law struck down began their closing arguments at the Montreal courthouse.

The law, known as Bill 21, bans public sector workers deemed to be in positions of authority, including police officers and teachers, from wearing religious symbols while on the job.

David Grossman, who represents Ichrak Nourel Hak, a teacher who wears a hijab, was the first to deliver his arguments. During the trial, Nourel Hak said that the law caused her and others to feel excluded from Quebec society. 

Grossman explained that the Constitution is not just a series of articles, but that it has an overall structure, and one of the underpinning principles is the possibility for everyone to participate equally in society.

Thus, if a provincial government wants to "modify the architecture of the Canadian Constitution," it must follow the amendment procedure, which it can't do alone, he said.

Otherwise, the next government of Quebec could decide that all teachers must be Sikhs, or exclude women from the public service or force all public servants to pray to the Christian god every morning with an "ordinary law, without amending the Constitution."

The case is particularly complicated because the Quebec government invoked the notwithstanding clause when adopting the secularism law, overriding certain rights protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That prevented opponents of the law from claiming discrimination and arguing that the law violates their right to equality.

The challengers are attempting to get around this difficulty by arguing that the law violates other articles and principles of the charter that are not shielded by the notwithstanding clause. 

The presiding judge, Marc-Andre Blanchard of Quebec Superior Court, has scheduled 14 days to hear arguments from both sides.

The trial began Nov. 2. Both those challenging the law and its supporters called witnesses, including a number of experts.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 30, 2020.

Stephanie Marin, The Canadian Press