English-language school boards argue Quebec's secularism law should not apply to them

The Quebec Court of Appeal in Montreal is hearing arguments about the constitutionality of Quebec's secularism law, widely known as Bill 21. (François Sauvé/Radio-Canada - image credit)
The Quebec Court of Appeal in Montreal is hearing arguments about the constitutionality of Quebec's secularism law, widely known as Bill 21. (François Sauvé/Radio-Canada - image credit)

English-language school boards argued before the Quebec Court of Appeal Wednesday they should be exempt from Quebec's secularism law — known as Bill 21 — because religious diversity is part of the cultural heritage of English schools in Quebec.

"The examples are countless as to the way religious diversity is celebrated in English schools. It's part of the schools' DNA," Perri Ravon, lawyer for the English Montreal School Board (EMSB), told the court.

"The province must respect fundamental rights and freedoms when it legislates education," Ravon said.

Enacted under the Coalition Avenir Québec government in 2019, Bill 21 prohibits public school teachers, police officers, government lawyers, a host of other civil servants and even some politicians from wearing religious symbols at work.

The Quebec government and several civil liberties groups are presenting arguments this week about a Superior Court decision last year, which upheld most — but not all — provisions of the law.

Most notably, Superior Court Judge Marc-André Blanchard ruled that Bill 21 should not be applied at English-language school boards because of their minority language rights guaranteed in the Constitution allowing them "management and control" of English-language education in the province.

The province is appealing that aspect of the ruling, while civil liberties groups want to see the entire law struck down.

Despite Blanchard's ruling, Bill 21 has continued to be applied at English-language boards pending the results of this appeal. The EMSB failed in a legal bid last year to be exempt from applying the law while awaiting the results of the appeal.

Province argues law has 'no effect' on linguistic minority rights

Tuesday, the lawyer for the attorney general of Quebec argued that the minority language protections afforded to English-language school boards applied strictly to matters of language instruction, and not to what he called "cultural preoccupations" regarding religious symbols.

"Bill 21 has no effect on the erosion of linguistic minority rights," Manuel Klein told the court.

He argued the "political opinions and expressions of values" of English-language school boards do not have constitutional protections that should allow them to be exempt from Bill 21.

"There's nothing other than language that should be taken into consideration," Klein said.

EMSB calls Bill 21 'an affront to its identity'

The EMSB's lawyer fired back Wednesday, citing several court decisions that have recognized the right of minority language school boards to promote and preserve linguistic culture, cultural heritage, customs, habits and experiences.

Ravon argued that religious diversity was deeply entrenched in the English-language minority culture in Quebec, and therefore entitled to constitutional protection.

"Life in English school boards is permeated by a celebration of diversity in all its forms. English school boards experience Bill 21 as an affront to their identity,"  Ravon said.

"Bill 21 conveys to students cultural values that are antithetical to those of English-language school boards," she said. "It conveys to students that English schools are places where religious minorities are not welcome."

Ravon noted that previous court decisions have recognized that the right of minority language school boards to manage and control the instruction of language and culture extends to hiring of teachers and personnel.

She said applying the law has meant the EMSB has been forced, reluctantly, to turn away otherwise qualified prospective teachers who say they will refuse to remove their religious symbols while at work.

Klein countered that it's the rights of parents belonging to language minority that are protected in that provision of the Constitution, not the rights of teachers who work for minority language boards.

The hearings before the Court of Appeal are set to wrap tomorrow, with an additional day set aside next week in case the panel of judges has more questions for the lawyers.

It will likely be several months before the court issues a decision. During that period Bill 21 will continue to be applied at English-language language school boards.

Even if the court eventually rules that English boards should be exempt from the law, it could be several years before that actually happens.

All parties have indicated that this matter will ultimately be resolved by the Supreme Court of Canada, a process that could take years.