Quebec court rules today on whether religious symbols ban violates Constitution


A Quebec Superior Court judge will issue a ruling later this morning on whether the province's controversial ban on religious symbols is constitutional. The ruling could have far-reaching implications for the rest of the country.

The ruling on whether Quebec's controversial ban on religious symbols is constitutional comes roughly four months after the trial wrapped up in Montreal.(Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

A Quebec Superior Court judge will issue a ruling later this morning on whether the province's controversial ban on religious symbols is constitutional.

The ruling, which is expected to be made public around 9 a.m., comes roughly a year and a half after the Coalition Avenir Québec government passed Bill 21, which bans some civil servants from wearing religious symbols at work.

Among the largest group affected by the ban are Muslim women, who are no longer allowed to wear hijabs if they work as public teachers, police officers, prison guards or government-paid lawyers.

The restrictions were necessary, the government said, to protect Quebec's unique version of secularism, or laicity.

Civil liberties groups — including the National Council of Muslims — began filing lawsuits against Bill 21 as soon as it was passed. At a trial this fall, Justice Marc-André Blanchard heard four different lawsuits, each attacking different aspects of the law.

The lawsuits had to negotiate the protections provided to the law by the Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the notwithstanding clause. It shields the law from claims the ban is unconstitutional because it violates freedom of religion or basic equality rights.

Blanchard's decision will be watched closely for how it treats many of the novel legal arguments the plaintiffs used to try to bypass the notwithstanding clause.

These include testing the scope of gender equality provisions in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and appealing to "unwritten principles" contained within the Constitution.

The English Montreal School Board claims the law violates the minority language education rights contained in the Charter, which are not covered by the notwithstanding clause.

Ruling of national interest, expert says

Some experts say the ruling will have national implications.

"This dispute has been framed very much as a Quebec one. There is a Quebec-specific idea of secularism. There are Quebec concerns about nationalism and the ability to live together," said Robert Leckey, dean of McGill University's faculty of law.

"But the constitutional matters raised in this [case] apply across the entire federation."

Premier François Legault's government passed Bill 21 into law in June 2019. It bans some civil servants from wearing religious symbols at work.(Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

For proponents of the law, one of the major issues at stake is the ability of Quebe'sc legislature to pass legislation without interference from the courts.

"The issue is not only the question of secularism, the issue is also are we free or not to make these decisions within the Canadian framework?" said Jean-François Lisée, former leader of the sovereigntist Parti Québécois and a vocal supporter of Bill 21.

The PQ joined the CAQ in voting for the law back in the summer of 2019. The official Opposition Liberals and Québec Solidaire, a left-wing sovereigtnist party, voted against.

Tuesday's decision will mark the first time a court has issued an opinion on the law's constitutionality. It is, however, highly unlikely to settle the matter.

Most legal experts expect the issue will eventually be appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Kindergarten teacher Haniyfa Scott gives a lesson during class in Montreal, in April 2019. Bill 21 bans the wearing of religious symbols for new government-placed employees within schools, the courts and law enforcement. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

With files from Steve Rukavina and Cathy Senay at the National Assembly

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