CanadaPolitics

Bill 21: Quebec Court of Appeal to rule on constitutionality of secularism law

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MONTREAL — The Quebec Court of Appeal will rule today on the constitutionality of the province’s secularism law, better known as Bill 21.

The 2019 law declares the province is a secular state and includes a provision prohibiting public sector workers in positions of authority — including teachers, judges, and police officers — from wearing such religious symbols as the hijab, kippah, turban or crucifix while on the job.

In April 2021, Quebec Superior Court largely upheld the controversial legislation but struck down provisions relating to English-language school boards and a ban on face coverings for members of the provincial legislature.

While Bill 21 made pre-emptive use of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ notwithstanding clause, shielding legislation from court challenges over violations of fundamental rights, the court found the clause does not override minority language rights.

Groups that oppose Bill 21 appealed the Superior Court ruling, as did the Quebec government, which argued that laws adopted by the legislature must apply to all of Quebec.

The province’s high court will publish the highly anticipated ruling from a panel of three judges on its website.

The earlier Superior Court ruling acknowledged the secularism law violates the rights of Muslim women and has a “cruel” and dehumanizing effect on those who wear religious symbols and can’t seek work in the public service without compromising their beliefs.

Superior Court Justice Marc-André Blanchard also criticized the provincial government’s liberal use of the notwithstanding clause but ruled it was legal to do so. “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 read.

The Legault government announced this month its plans to renew the application of the notwithstanding clause to the law for another five years. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms stipulates that the override clause can be applied to legislation for up to five years, after which time it needs to be renewed by the legislature.

While English school boards won the initial challenge, they haven’t been able to hire people who wear religious symbols since the ruling, pending the conclusion of the appeal process.

The Quebec government has repeatedly argued that Bill 21 is moderate and supported by a majority of Quebecers. The law included a grandfather clause exempting those who wore religious symbols and were employed before the bill was tabled, as long as they didn’t change jobs.

However, the law sparked outrage among religious minorities across Canada, and critics argued it targets racialized minorities who choose to practise their faith. Several groups, including the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the National Council of Canadian Muslims, took the province to court.

The decision on Thursday could be a precursor for an eventual case before the Supreme Court of Canada.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government previously announced its intention to participate in any Supreme Court challenge to Bill 21, which Premier François Legault said showed a “lack of respect for Quebecers.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 29, 2024.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

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