Quebec court upholds most of province's secularism law, exempts English school boards

·2 min read

MONTREAL — The Quebec Superior Court has largely upheld the province's law that bans certain public sector workers from wearing religious symbols on the job.

Justice Marc-Andre Blanchard did however rule that certain provisions of the law are unconstitutional as they pertain to English school boards.

The judge also struck down a ban on members of the national assembly wearing face coverings.

Bill 21 was adopted in June 2019 and prohibits public sector workers who are deemed to be in positions of authority, including teachers, police officers and judges, from wearing symbols such as hijabs, kippas or turbans at work.

In a ruling of nearly 240 pages, Blanchard concluded that Bill 21 "does not violate the Canadian constitutional architecture" or "the rule of law."

The law made pre-emptive use of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms' notwithstanding clause, which shields legislation from most court challenges over violations of fundamental rights.

In a bid to get around the notwithstanding clause, the plaintiffs had invoked certain guarantees that they maintained were not covered by the notwithstanding clause.

Blanchard wrote that the use of the notwithstanding clause was legal, though excessive.

"The use by the legislator of exemption clauses appears excessive, because it's too broad, although legally unassailable in the current state of the law," the decision reads.

While he concluded that certain clauses in the bill violate Section 23 of the charter, which guarantees minority language rights, he declined to overturn the substance of the law.

The plaintiffs notably invoked the sexual equality guarantees in Section 28 of the charter, arguing that the law disproportionately affects women — particularly Muslim women who wear hijabs.

Blanchard found that while the evidence "undoubtedly" shows that Muslim teachers will be the most impacted by the law, he disagreed with the plaintiffs' argument that the relevant segment of the charter is not covered by the notwithstanding clause.

"Section 28 of the Canadian charter, which guarantees equal rights for both sexes, has no scope other than interpretive and it does not independently invalidate laws," the decision reads.

In a series of Twitter messages, the English Montreal School Board said it was "elated" with the decision to strike down the provisions of the law that pertain to it.

"We value the diversity of our students and staff and respect their personal and religious rights, which are guaranteed both by the Canadian and Quebec charters of rights," board chairman Joe Ortona wrote.

"This legislation runs contrary to what we teach and to the culture of respect for individual rights and religious freedoms within English-language schools."

Speaking in Ottawa, Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet said he was pleased with the court's choice to uphold the province's right to legislate to protect secularism.

The Canadian Press