Quebec’s highest court to begin hearing appeals on provincial secularism law


MONTREAL – Quebec’s highest court is set to begin hearing appeals on the constitutionality of the province’s secularism law, known as Bill 21.

Both the Quebec government and groups opposing the law are challenging an April 2021 court decision that largely upheld the controversial religious symbols law, while striking down provisions that related to English-language school boards and a ban on members of the provincial legislature wearing face coverings

The law prohibits public sector workers who are deemed to be in positions of authority, including teachers, police officers and judges, from wearing symbols such as hijabs, kippas or turbans at work.

A Superior Court justice ruled last year that the law has “serious and negative” impacts on people who wear religious symbols, but is largely legal and does not violate the constitution.

Efforts to challenge the law are complicated by the Quebec government’s pre-emptive use of the charter’s notwithstanding clause, which shields legislation from most court challenges over violations of fundamental rights.

The groups opposing the law filed arguments in December saying the bill goes against Canada’s constitutional architecture and it infringes on federal jurisdiction.

By thus excluding a group of people from several spheres of society because of their religion in an attempt to ‘protect’ a certain vision of social peace or fundamental social values, Law 21 contradicts the principle of religious inclusion stemming from our Constitution, and it represents an invalid attempt to legislate in an area of jurisdiction reserved for the federal legislator,” read the legal arguments filed to the Court of Appeal in Dec. 2021.

Representatives from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the National Council of Canadian Muslims will address the media Monday morning ahead of the start of the hearings, which are expected to take place this week and next at the Court of Appeal in Montreal.

The Quebec government passed Bill 21 in 2019 and has repeatedly argued the law is moderate and supported by a majority of Quebecers.

Critics, on the other hand, have argued it targets racialized minorities who choose to practice their religion, especially Muslim women.

In his 2021 decision, Justice Marc-Andre Blanchard acknowledged that the law has “cruel” and “dehumanizing” consequences for those who wear religious symbols, many of whom would no longer be able to seek out new jobs in the public service without compromising their beliefs.

He noted the law “negatively impacts Muslim women first and foremost,” and violates their freedom of expression and religion.

But he ruled the law was allowed to stand due to the government’s invocation of the notwithstanding clause, which shields the legislation from most charter challenges.

Blanchard did strike down a portion of the law that applies to English school boards, as well as a section that banned members of the provincial legislature from wearing face coverings.

The Quebec government is appealing that ruling.

The federal government has said it is prepared to join the legal challenge to the law if it eventually ends up in the Supreme Court of Canada.