MONTREAL — The Court of Quebec is standing by the decision of one of its judges who refused to hear a woman’s case unless she removed her Islamic headscarf.
Court spokeswoman Annie-Claude Bergeron said Friday that despite widespread public criticism, Judge Eliana Marengo will not bow to public pressure and Tuesday’s court ruling stands.
“There is really no question of letting (public) pressure change the decision,” Bergeron said in an interview.
Marengo told Rania El-Alloul inside a Montreal courtroom she had to remove her hijab before the court would hear her case against the province’s automobile insurance board, which had seized her vehicle.
The judge said her courtroom was a secular space and religious clothing of any kind is inappropriate.
Marengo cited Article 13 of the rules of provincial court, which reads that “any person appearing before the court must be suitably dressed.”
The judge interpreted the rules to include religious headscarves.
“I will therefore not hear you if you are wearing a scarf on your head, just as I would not allow a person to appear before me wearing a hat or sunglasses on his or her head, or any other garment not suitable for a court proceeding,” Marengo says in a recording of the proceedings.
El-Alloul refused and the judge adjourned the case to an undetermined date.
Bergeron repeated Friday that judges are masters of their courtroom and have the right to interpret the law and set the rules of the court as they see fit.
Federal and provincial politicians, law professors and civil rights groups and other community groups denounced the decision.
Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard in his government’s opinion, the only time people should be forced to remove an article of religious clothing is if the clothing is causing problems for “communication, identification or security.”
“I will be very careful because the judge is sovereign in her decisions, in her courtroom,” Couillard told reporters Friday. “I’m a little bit disturbed by this event, I must say.”
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association said the judge’s decision was disrespectful, troubling, and a violation of El-Alloul’s fundamental right to freedom of religion.
“The courtroom has every right to be secular,” said Sukania Pillay, the association’s executive director. “But that doesn’t translate into telling people what they can and cannot wear in a manner that’s incompatible with their freedom of religion.”
Lucie Lamarche, a lawyer and a spokeswoman for Quebec’s league for rights and freedoms, said there is “no judicial precedent” for Marengo’s decision.
“The judge has the right to enforce the decorum in the courtroom,” Lamarche said. “But there is no definition of decorum.”
She said Marengo’s decision was “extremely personal and discriminatory regarding what it means to be dressed properly in the courtroom.”
Lamarche added that the chief justice of the Court of Quebec has the ability to remove a judge from a particular case and that El-Alloul can make that request.
Balpreet Singh, spokesman for the World Sikh Organization of Canada, said he was “stunned” when he heard of Marengo’s decision.
“This judge is ignoring both Canadian and Quebec law which clearly protects freedom of religion,” he said. “Turbans or other religious clothing doesn’t affect the secular nature of the courtroom.”