Lawyers seek ruling on whether judges can dictate religious attire in court

Lawyers for a woman who was denied a court appearance because of her hijab are seeking a legal opinion on the rights of Quebecers who want access to justice while wearing religious attire.

MONTREAL — Lawyers for a woman who was denied a court appearance because of her hijab are seeking a legal opinion on the rights of Quebecers who want access to justice while wearing religious attire.

They filed a motion on Friday with the Quebec Superior Court on behalf of Rania El-Alloul, whose case was not heard after she refused to remove her head scarf.

Quebec court Judge Eliana Marengo told El-Alloul on Feb. 24 that her case involving the province’s automobile insurance board and her impounded vehicle would not proceed as long as she was wearing the hijab.

She refused to remove it and the judge put the case off. It was ultimately settled in mid-March when the car was returned.

“We are asking to establish a principle, a principle that is a legal one: that you cannot refuse to hear a litigant because of a hijab, a turban, a kippa,” constitutional lawyer Julius Grey said.

The motion will be presented April 30.

Grey and fellow Montreal lawyer Mathieu Bouchard said they’re also preparing a judicial complaint against Marengo, not for the purposes of a reprimand, but to make it clear judges cannot choose their clientele.

“A judge has to sit and judge between all the people who come,” Grey said. “And we would like that to be made clear to all the judiciary.”

El-Alloul thanked the lawyers for accepting the case and said she’s buoyed by the support she’s received from Quebecers and other Canadians.

“I did not expect I would be going through this experience,” El-Aloull said. “It has been difficult and challenging because it has raised a lot of questions about whether or not a woman practising her faith can equally access justice like anybody else.”

El-Alloul, a single mother, dedicated her fight to her sons.

“I want them to see their mother as being a strong Canadian Muslim woman who is proud of this country and proud of her faith,” she said. “And I want them to know we do not have to choose between the two.”

For Grey and Bouchard, the legal case represents a blending of several major issues: freedom of religion, access to courts and the right to equality.

Access to justice is fundamental, particularly for those who cannot afford a lawyer, Bouchard said.

“They have to be accepted, treated well, they have to be heard,” he said.

“That, to me, is the biggest problem here: someone went to court in good faith thinking they could and would get a remedy and what they got was shown out the door and that is just unacceptable.”

The lawyers said they have no financial arrangement with El-Alloul.

She refused more than $50,000 raised on her behalf through a recent crowdfunding campaign, suggesting the money be used to tell others’ stories.

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