English Montreal School Board asks court to speed up exemption from religious symbols law

·3 min read
EMSB chair Joe Ortona says delaying the EMSB's exemption to Bill 21 forces the board's teachers to choose between their religious freedom and their jobs. (Steve Rukavina - image credit)
EMSB chair Joe Ortona says delaying the EMSB's exemption to Bill 21 forces the board's teachers to choose between their religious freedom and their jobs. (Steve Rukavina - image credit)

The English Montreal School Board was before the Quebec Court of Appeal Monday, asking for an acceleration of its exemption to Bill 21, the controversial law that prevents some civil servants in positions of authority — including teachers — from wearing religious symbols while at work.

Several groups are challenging Bill 21 in court. They lost the first round of that court battle in a decision from Superior Court Justice Marc-André Blanchard last April that upheld the law.

Blanchard made one exception. English language school boards would be exempt from Bill 21. He ruled that the desire of English boards to foster diversity by choosing who they hire was protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But that exemption doesn't take effect until all appeals of Blanchard's decision have been exhausted.

That means, for now, English boards can't promote or transfer any teachers who currently wear religious symbols, and it can't hire new teachers who refuse to remove their religious symbols in class.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association are appealing the decision on the grounds that Bill 21 is unconstitutional, while Quebec Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette is also appealing the section of the decision that granted English school boards an exemption.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press
Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Those appeals, which will likely end up before the Supreme Court of Canada, could take years to play out.

The EMSB says that's too long to wait.

'Irreparable harm'

"The real question is — given that the appeals won't be resolved quickly — will the EMSB, its culture and its schools, suffer irreparable harm in the meantime?" Perri Ravon, the board's lawyer, said in court Monday.

Ravon argued that the EMSB's culture was rooted in promoting diversity, and that by preventing the board from hiring a diverse range of teachers, Bill 21 was threatening that culture.

She noted that, in his original decision, Judge Blanchard accepted testimony from an expert witness who found that limiting the number of teachers from diverse backgrounds was likely to harm students educationally and economically.

"This is a very serious harm that gets more serious with every passing day," Ravon argued before Justice Frédéric Bachand.

Government argues legacy clause prevents irreparable harm

Lawyers for the the province argued that the EMSB failed to demonstrate the concept of irreparable harm.

They noted that Bill 21 includes a legacy clause that allows teachers who wear religious symbols and were employed before the law was passed to continue wearing those symbols in the classroom.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press
Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Government lawyers also noted that the EMSB failed to provide any witnesses or sworn statements from teachers or students saying they'd suffered irreparable harm.

"It's not simply about how many individual teachers are wearing religious symbols. It's about the messaging. This messaging harms students," Ravon responded.

She noted teachers protected by the legacy clause can't be promoted or transferred unless they agree to stop wearing their religious symbols, and all new hires are prevented from wearing religious symbols. She argued this essentially encourages those teachers to leave the system.

Judge Bachand said he would take time to consider the arguments. He'll likely have a decision in the coming weeks.

EMSB chair Joe Ortona said after the hearing he hoped the decision would come soon.

"We value tolerance, diversity, acceptance, multiculturalism, and exposing children to that, we think, is an asset," Ortona said.

"This bill hinders that. It forces teachers to have to choose between their fundamental religious freedoms and their job. Every day this bill is in effect, our students are missing out," Ortona said.

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