The law was passed late Sunday night. On Monday morning, the first motion against it was filed with the Québec Superior Court.
All of this concerns Bill 21, which blocks certain government workers (including cops and teachers) from wearing religious symbols like hijabs and yarmulkes and turbans “in order to protect Quebec’s secular society.” Those who wear religious symbols in their current positions will be allowed to continue, but if they earn a promotion or there’s a new hire, the ban goes into effect.
Opposition to the law, passed by Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), has mobilized swiftly through both formal and informal channels. Protestors have gathered in Montreal to demonstrate outside the office of Premier François Legault. Politicians and elected officials have expressed concerns regarding citizens’ religious rights. At least one school board has promised to outright defy the law. And the Canadian Civil Liberties Association has partnered with the National Council of Canadian Muslims to challenge the law’s validity in court.
The legal challenge is being filed on behalf of education student Ichrak Nourel Hak, one of many prospective teachers whose chosen livelihood will be impacted by the new law. Hak, whose religious convictions require her to wear a hijab in day-to-day life, would have to choose between her expression of faith and her ability to access meaningful work and participate in society.
This law has been in the works for a long time; Québec has been wrestling with the question of laïcité — secularism — for a number of years now. The province remembers the “charter of values” proposed by Parti Québécois and follow-up legislation pushed by their Liberal successors. In fact, Catherine McKenzie — the lawyer behind this most recent court challenge — successfully fought a similar religious symbols ban in 2017.
However, this time there’s a difference: the new law invokes the controversial “notwithstanding clause”, which protects it from challenges based on Charter rights for a maximum of five years. Essentially, Coalition Avenir Québec can acknowledge that their law may afoul of fundamental rights such as freedom of religion… but they’re passing it anyway.
So, rather than making the clear argument that the law infringes on Québecers’ free religious expression, the current motion argues that the law is vaguely worded in such a way that invites arbitrary application, which can be used to exclude whole categories of Québec residents from accessing government work. Opposition politicians agree: Interim Liberal leader Pierre Arcand described it as a “shoddy, inapplicable law which tramples the rights of minorities.”
In a time of increasing xenophobia in Québec, that’s an important consideration. Although its creators maintain the law isn’t meant to target a particular religious or cultural group, surveys have found a clear association between support for the bill and anti-Islamic sentiment. Roughly half of participants believed that the mere presence of religious and cultural minorities in Québec was a threat to their way of life.
Coalition Avenir Québec has been accused of promoting, not laïcité, but “catholaïcité” — a form of enforced secularism that gives a pass to religious symbols associated with the province’s Catholic history, such as crucifixes in public buildings. Legault has agreed to remove the crucifix from Québec’s National Assembly in order to “show all Québecers that we are also willing to make compromises.”
Without being able to draw a distinction between religion in public places and individual expressions of faith, however, their attempts at compromise can only go so far.
“I am still worried about how this will be applicable in day-to-day life,” Montreal mayor Valérie Plante explained when asked about the law, “because this is about human beings. Ultimately, it’s not about a law or a clause or phrases: it’s about people that are part of Montreal’s vitality, and I want to make sure they feel respected.”
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