The highest court in the Canadian province of Quebec struck down parts of a law that prohibits some public sector employees from wearing religious symbols such as the hijab at work – but upheld most of the contentious laws.
In a 242-page decision released Tuesday morning, the Superior Court of Quebec said the law – widely known as Bill 21 – violated parts of Canada’s constitution, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
But the ruling upholds most of the legislation, which prohibits public sector employees in positions of authority, such as teachers and prosecutors, from wearing religious symbols at work. This can include the hijab worn by some Muslim women, Jewish kippahs, or Sikh turbans.
Passed in June 2019, Bill 21 drew widespread criticism as a violation of religious freedom, civil rights and religious groups saying so would disproportionately harm Muslim women who are already marginalized.
The National Council of Canadian Muslims (CNMC) and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), two of the main groups challenging the law as unconstitutional, said on Tuesday they were studying the court’s decision and would comment later.
The World Organization of Sikhs in Canada said, while welcoming that parts of the law were struck down, “we must continue the legal battle to see this discriminatory law struck down in its entirety.”
“We continue to review the decision”, the group tweeted.
The Superior Court’s decision could be appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.
CBC News reported Tuesday’s ruling means that English-language schools in the predominantly French-speaking province will be exempt, while members of the legislature will be allowed to cover their faces for religious reasons.
The English Montreal School Board (EMSB), the largest English-language public school board in Quebec, which had challenged the law, said it was “elated” by the decision.
“This legislation is contrary to what we teach and the culture of respect for individual rights and religious freedoms in English schools,” said Giuseppe Ortona, EMSB lawyer, in a tweet shared by the school board.
.@MeOrtona: “Further, a religious symbol worn by a teacher in no way affects their ability to provide quality education in a secular state, in a secular education system, and in the classrooms of public schools administered by the EMSB.” (3/3)
– English Montreal School Board (@EnglishMTL) April 20, 2021
“In addition, a religious symbol worn by a teacher does not affect their ability to provide quality education in a secular state, in a secular education system, and in the classrooms of public schools administered by the EMSB.
The provincial government did not immediately comment on the court ruling on Tuesday.
Quebec had invoked a rarely used Charter clause to limit legal efforts against Bill 21, prohibiting groups from arguing that the law violated freedom of religion, among other protected rights.
The parties involved in the case used other provisions of the Charter to argue that the law was unconstitutional.
“The Canadian constitution is supposed to protect our law and our democracy,” Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, CCLA equality program director, said in a statement last fall (fall). before the hearings of the Superior Court of Quebec.
“There is no excuse for a discriminatory law that has already caused intense harm to Muslim women and others,” she said.
Quebec has seen over a decade of passionate debate around secularism, the separation of church and state and what officials have called “reasonable accommodation” for religious minorities.
Bill 21 is the latest effort to restrict religious symbols in the province, where the government has argued that the law is a necessary measure to ensure the secularism of the state (laïcité, in French).
Shortly before its adoption in 2019, a poll showed 64 percent of Quebecers were in favor of restricting religious symbols in the public sphere, against only 27% against.
But critics said the law sends a dangerous message amid rising anti-Muslim sentiment in Quebec, where a gunman opened fire on a mosque in the provincial capital, Quebec, in January 2017, killing six worshipers.
Muslim women in Quebec also reported an upsurge in harassment and violence, which they linked to the adoption and heated rhetoric around Bill 21.