The English Montreal School Board has filed a challenge to Quebec’s secularism law, arguing it contravenes minority language education rights and should be struck down.
In an application today seeking judicial review, lawyers for the board hinge their challenge on Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees minority language educational rights to linguistic minorities.
It also argues the law has a disproportionate impact on women – particularly Muslim women – and therefore infringes Section 28, which guarantees equality of the sexes.
While Bill 21 invokes the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause to shield it from charter challenges, the filing argues neither Sections 23 or 28 are subject to the clause.
The board has noted that several Supreme Court of Canada decisions have upheld Section 23, which gives communities the right to manage their public school systems.
Bill 21 came into effect in June. It prohibits public servants deemed to be in positions of authority – including teachers, judges and police officers – from wearing religious symbols, such as turbans, kippas and hijabs.
There is a grandfather clause exempting those who were employed before the bill was tabled in the spring, as long as they stay in their current jobs.
The English school board has continued to apply the law, as have all other school boards across the province.
Last month, the board said at least four prospective teachers – mainly women who wore hijabs – withdrew their applications after going through the interview process and being told they would have to remove religious symbols to teach.
The province’s largest French-language school board, the Commission scolaire de Montreal, has said it dealt with five such cases, four of whom agreed to remove their symbols and one who did not.
The National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Canadian Civil Liberties Union have also filed a challenge of the law and are appealing a recent Quebec Superior Court decision that rejected their request for an immediate stay of some of the law’s provisions.
The Coalition Avenir Quebec government has defended the secularism law, saying it enjoys strong support among Quebecers. It notably put party leaders on notice in the recent federal election about joining court challenges.
On Thursday, Quebec Education Minister Jean-Francois Roberge pushed back at the notion that Muslim women are disproportionately targeted by the law, saying there’s no evidence of that.
“I don’t think so. It’s not racist. It’s not sexist. It’s just the way that Quebecers want to have people with authority,” Roberge told reporters in Montreal. “We don’t want people with authority … to wear religious symbols – it’s as simple as that. It applies to men and women.”
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