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Canada: Court to hear challenge to ‘religious symbols’ law

Summary

A long-awaited court case gets under way this week in the Canadian province of Quebec, where civil rights groups say a law that prohibits the wearing of religious garb by some public servants violates the country’s constitution. The lawsuit against […]

A long-awaited court case gets under way this week in the Canadian province of Quebec, where civil rights groups say a law that prohibits the wearing of religious garb by some public servants violates the country’s constitution.

The lawsuit against Bill 21 was filed by the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) and Ichrak Nourel Hak, a Sikh woman, and it will be heard in Quebec Superior Court on November 2.

The law, passed in June 2019, bars some teachers, lawyers, police officers and others in the public sphere from wearing religious symbols on the job, including the hijab worn by Muslim women, kippahs worn by Jewish men, and turbans worn by Sikhs.

The applicants say the law is discriminatory and creates “second-class citizenship” in Canada.

People have “lost their jobs simply because of what they wear and what they believe”, Mustafa Farooq, the CEO of NCCM, told Al Jazeera in a phone interview.

“People have had to leave the province and change who they are. That is not acceptable. That’s why we will never stop fighting Bill 21.”

Nour Farhat, a Muslim lawyer from Montreal who wears a hijab, a headscarf worn by many Muslim women who feel it is part of their religion, was working towards a master’s degree in law – in hopes of fulfilling her dream of becoming a state prosecutor – when Bill 21 was passed last year.

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The law has since forced her to work at a private firm because she cannot work as a state employee while wearing a hijab.

“(Bill 21) prohibited me from taking a path I always wanted to take,” Farhat told Al Jazeera. The court case, she added, will be one of the “biggest trials of (her) life”.

Anti-Muslim sentiment

Despite staunch opposition, Quebec Premier Francois Legault has defended the legislation, saying it is a moderate measure that does not violate freedom of religion and is supported by a “vast majority of Quebecers”.

A survey of more than 1,200 Quebecers conducted by Leger Marketing in May 2019 showed that 63 percent of people in the province supported Bill 21.

However, according to the poll, which was commissioned by the Association for Canadian Studies, only 37 percent of Quebecers had a positive view of Muslims while only 28 percent had a positive view of Islam.

Of those with negative views of Islam, 88 percent supported the ban on religious symbols for public school teachers, the survey found.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault has defended Bill 21, saying the law is a moderate measure that is supported by a majority of Quebecers [File: Carlos Osorio/Reuters]

While the Quebec government says the bill is applied to people of all faiths equally, civil rights and community groups say Muslims are bearing the brunt of its effects – especially Muslim women who wear the hijab.

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“It is impossible to deny that there are xenophobic parts to this bill,” NCCM’s Farooq said. “There is a reason why this bill is coming from a man (Legault) who refuses to use the term systemic racism.”

Legault has repeatedly refused to acknowledge that systemic racism exists in Quebec, despite numerous reports outlining the problem.

“Whenever the politicians are talking about the bill, they are always talking about Muslim women – and not Sikh men or Jewish men,” Farhat told Al Jazeera.

After Bill 21 was first tabled in March 2019, Justice Femme, a Montreal women’s rights group, reported receiving more than 40 calls from Muslim women reporting hate incidents, including verbal and physical abuse, being spat on and having people attempt to rip their hijab off.

The murder of six Muslim men at a Quebec City mosque in January 2017 further brought Islamophobia in the province into the spotlight.

Recent anti-Muslim attacks outside of Quebec have also raised concerns. In September, a Muslim man was killed outside a Toronto-area mosque by a man with ties to a white supremacist ideology, sending shockwaves across the Canadian Muslim community.

‘Uphill battle’ in court

The legal case against Bill 21 “will be an uphill battle”, however, Montreal-based human rights lawyer and adjunct professor of law at Mcgill University Pearl Eliadis told Al Jazeera.

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Eliadis said the difficulty lies in showing a legal basis to strike down the law that falls outside the exceptions offered by what’s called a “notwithstanding clause”, which the Quebec government invoked to pass Bill 21.

That seldom-used clause allows governments to override specific parts of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom for up to five years.

It is impossible to deny that there are xenophobic parts to this bill. There is a reason why this bill is coming from a man (Legault) who refuses to use the term systemic racism

Mustafa Farooq, National Council of Canadian Muslims

In December of last year, the Quebec Court of Appeal rejected a motion from NCCM and CCLA to suspend the law’s application until the case could be heard on its merits, saying the notwithstanding clause left them no choice but to rule against the plaintiffs.

Still, Eliadis said there are some provisions in the Canadian charter that are not touched by the notwithstanding clause – such as gender equality and multiculturalism – that can be used to challenge the bill.

That is what the applicants will do in their case – and they are hopeful the law will be overturned. “We want the bill struck down in its entirety,” NCCM’s Farooq said.

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