Quebec’s Ban on Public Religious Symbols Largely Upheld

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MONTREAL — A Quebec court on Tuesday largely upheld a law barring public sector employees such as schoolteachers, police officers, and judges from wearing religious symbols while at work, in a ruling that human rights advocates said would undermine civil liberties in the province.

But the ruling also made some big exceptions that dissatisfied the provincial government. Both sides said they intended to appeal.

Religious minorities across the province said the decision marginalizes them. While the ban is supported by a majority of Quebecers, it has nevertheless proved deeply polarizing in Quebec society where minority lawyers and teachers, among others, say it has derailed their lives and careers, while fomenting Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

“The law destroyed my career dreams,” said Noor Farhat, a lawyer who wears a head scarf and aspired to be a public prosecutor. She represented a large Quebec teachers’ union that is one of the plaintiffs in the case. “It is a clear violation of freedom of religion and the government is limiting human rights,” she said.

François Legault, the right-leaning Quebec premier, has said that the law is necessary to ensure that the separation between religion and state is respected in Quebec, a province where secularism holds sway. The law, adopted in June 2019, applies to Muslim head scarves, Jewish skullcaps, Sikh turbans and Catholic crosses, among other symbols.

Lawyers for the Quebec government argued that the law did not impinge on minority rights since people could practice their religion at home. Supporters of the law also argued that it is a force for liberal values, including respect for women and gay people, by preventing religious orthodoxy from encroaching on public life.

But human rights advocates and legal scholars counter that the law breaches the Canadian constitutional right to freedom of religion, while undermining social equality and denying minorities access to jobs in vital fields such as education and law enforcement. They also criticize the law as running counter to Canada’s vaunted model of multiculturalism.

“It will drive religious minorities away rather than bringing them into society,” said Robert Leckey, dean of McGill University’s faculty of law in Montreal and a leading constitutional lawyer. “An inclusive society is surely one where schoolteachers are allowed to look like the kids they are teaching.”

In a 240-page ruling, Justice Marc-André Blanchard of the Quebec Superior Court in Montreal said the Quebec government had the right to restrict the religious symbols worn by public sector employees including teachers, police officers, lawyers and prison guards, while they were at work.

But he exempted English schools in the province from the law, saying that the English minority in Quebec had a constitutional right to govern its own schools. He also rejected the part of the law that prohibited members of Quebec’s legislature from covering their faces, effectively allowing people wearing turbans or headscarves to serve as elected members of the provincial legislature.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs said they planned to appeal the ruling to Quebec’s Court of Appeal and, if necessary, to Canada’s Supreme Court. Simon Jolin-Barrette, Quebec’s minister of justice, also said Quebec planned to appeal the ruling, saying that the exemptions carved out in the court’s decision threatened to effectively create two Quebecs and that the law should apply to all Quebecers.

A legal challenge to the law in the courts has proved difficult because to insulate it from potential court action, the government invoked a rarely used constitutional loophole known as the “notwithstanding clause,” which empowers Canadian legislatures to override some constitutional rights like freedom of religion or expression.

The clause was added to Canada’s 1982 constitution to appease some provinces, which were resistant to including a charter of rights as part of the document.

Ms. Farhat said the law had disproportionately affected visible minorities like Muslim women who wore outwardly conspicuous religious symbols like head scarves. A Catholic cross was less conspicuous since it could be concealed in a blouse or a shirt while at work.

Quebec is hardly alone in imposing such a law. In 2004 France banned religious symbols such as Muslim head scarves at state schools. In May 2018, Denmark banned face veils in public, igniting criticism that the law discriminated against Muslim women.

Identity and religion are sensitive issues in Quebec, a Francophone province surrounded by English-majority Canada. In the 1960s, Quebec underwent a social rebellion known as the Quiet Revolution during which Quebecers revolted against the Roman Catholic Church, which had dominated daily life in the province for decades. The result, sociologists say, is that outward expressions of religious orthodoxy have long been viewed with suspicion.

Julius Grey, a leading Canadian human rights lawyer who has argued frequently before the Supreme Court of Canada, said the decision could potentially open the way for other provinces to defy safeguards of the Canadian constitution by weaponizing the notwithstanding clause.

After the law was passed in June 2019, protests erupted across the province, with some local mayors and school boards in Montreal saying they would refuse to enforce it. The Quebec government passed an amendment appointing inspectors to ensure it was obeyed.

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