Judge rejects groups’ attempt to have Quebec secularism law suspended

MONTREAL — Quebec’s secularism law will continue to apply in full, Superior Court Justice Michel Yergeau ruled Thursday in rejecting a bid by religious and civil liberties groups to have the legislation suspended.

Lawyers representing a national Muslim organization, a civil liberties group and a university student who wears an Islamic head scarf had asked for a judicial stay of the central parts of the law, known as Bill 21. The legislation prohibits some public sector workers, including teachers and police officers, from wearing religious symbols at work.

Thursday’s decision means Bill 21 will remain in effect until a trial judge rules on the wider challenge to the legislation, which could take several years.

The applicants argued Bill 21 is causing serious, immediate harm to religious minorities across the province, but Yergeau said they failed to demonstrate the law is creating enough damage to warrant a stay for the duration of the court challenge.

Yergeau noted in his written ruling that the applicants were severely limited in their stay application because Bill 21, adopted in June, invokes the Canadian Constitution’s notwithstanding clause. That clause prevents citizens from challenging the law for violating fundamental rights and liberties protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Therefore, lawyers had to try and use arguments rooted outside the charter to convince a judge that Bill 21 was causing serious harm to religious minorities.

The applicants could not argue, for example, that Bill 21 violates a Muslim woman’s freedom of religion or her right to be free from discrimination on the basis of her religion — two rights guaranteed under the charter.

Instead, lawyers for the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and student Ichrak Nourel Hak, had to be creative. They argued the law was causing serious harm to religious minorities because it encroached on federal jurisdiction, it was impermissibly vague and because it violated a citizen’s right to participate in their democratic institutions.

Yergeau said those arguments did not justify the stay, and he rejected claims the law itself was causing harm to Muslim women or to other religious minorities.

The stay application included sworn testimony from people who claimed the law encouraged Islamophobia in Quebec society and limited employment opportunities for religious minorities.

“They are claiming discrimination on the basis of religious practices that the applicants liberally choose to adhere to,” Yergeau wrote. “Hostile looks from members of society or hurtful comments … are the result of deplorable excesses and an incivility that this law also seeks to stem.”

Elisabeth Gosselin, spokeswoman for the minister of immigration, diversity and inclusiveness, said the government is satisfied with the ruling.

“This ensures that law … will continue to apply,” she said. “The Quebec government is determined to defend the legitimacy of this law so that it continues to have full effect. A significant and representative majority of Quebecers supports this law, which puts an end to a debate that has continued in Quebec for more than 11 years.”

Mustafa Farooq, executive director of the Muslim council, said his organization has not decided whether to appeal.

“No one ever said that defending our civil liberties would be easy” he said in a statement. “We are reviewing the decision now, and are considering our options to appeal.”

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