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Joe Ortona, president of the EMSB and independent politician, announced on Thursday that his organization would continue its legal challenge of Bill 21.Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

Montreal’s English school board will seek leave to appeal Quebec’s controversial Bill 21 to the Supreme Court, hoping to overturn a law that prevents some public employees from wearing religious symbols such as hijabs.

Joe Ortona, chair of the English Montreal School Board (EMSB), announced on Thursday that his organization would continue its legal challenge of Bill 21 to Canada’s highest court on the grounds that it violates minority language and gender-equality rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The EMSB and other critics of the law have said that those rights should be protected even though the province invoked the Charter’s notwithstanding clause to shield Bill 21 from judicial intervention.

“We should be allowed to hire who we want,” said Mr. Ortona, who has been one of the law’s most vocal critics. “The government should not be allowed to impose completely arbitrary symbols like religious headwear that have no bearing on the quality of education that children receive – and just the opposite.”

Quebec Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette said his government would defend Bill 21 “to the end.” And Premier François Legault has long argued that the legislation is necessary to protect secularism in the province.

“It is a fundamental law of the Quebec state, a law that represents our values and our history,” Mr. Jolin-Barrette said in a statement on Thursday.

Since it was adopted in 2019, Bill 21 has barred public employees in positions of “coercive” authority, including police officers, prison guards and teachers, from wearing visible religious symbols. Under the law, people already in those jobs who wear such symbols are allowed to keep working. But they cannot be promoted or transferred, and new hires must remove the religious symbol to work.

In a February judgment, Quebec’s Court of Appeal largely upheld the law, and ruled that it should apply to the English school board, overturning a lower-court decision that had exempted the EMSB. The Court of Appeal found that Bill 21 does not infringe on the rights of Quebec’s English-speaking minority to manage their education system.

When Mr. Legault’s government used the notwithstanding clause for Bill 21, it prompting widespread condemnation across the country. The issue was widely expected to end up at the Supreme Court.

The federal Justice Ministry Thursday pointed to a February statement by Justice Minister Arif Virani that reiterated the Trudeau government commitment to intervene against Bill 21 if it reached the Supreme Court.

“Our government will be there to defend the Charter before the Supreme Court of Canada,” he said then. “This case touches on fundamental freedoms and rights and the interpretation and application of the Charter.”

The Legault government has argued that Quebec’s history of aggressively separating church and state during the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, after generations of societal dominance by the Catholic Church, makes it uniquely important to affirm the province’s status as a secular society.

But many critics of Bill 21 say it springs from xenophobia. Several groups, including the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the National Council of Canadian Muslims, launched a constitutional challenge and denounced the law’s effects on religious minorities.

The legislation was passed after years of fierce debate in Quebec about the “reasonable accommodation” of religious minorities amid rising rates of immigration and a more visibly diverse population.

Polls have consistently shown that a majority of Quebeckers support the law, but a 2022 survey by the Association for Canadian Studies also found that Muslim women, in particular, felt less welcome in Quebec since Bill 21 was passed.

McGill constitutional law professor Colleen Sheppard said she expects the Supreme Court to revisit the application of the notwithstanding clause to gender equality rights and protect Muslim women teachers, who have been disproportionately affected by Bill 21.

She added that the Court of Appeal’s decision failed “to respect a key interpretive principle – that a large and liberal interpretation should be accorded to constitutionally protected human rights, and a restrictive interpretation to limitations on rights.”

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