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A Nov. 21, 2019, file photo shows a building in an industrial park in Montreal, where it is believed children attend a school run by a religious group.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Leaders of a fringe Quebec religious group pleaded not guilty to contempt of court Wednesday as the provincial government continued its legal battle to establish whether members’ children are receiving a proper education.

Four members of the Mission de l’Esprit-Saint were present in a Montreal courtroom as their lawyer entered the plea in relation to two injunctions dated Nov. 6 and 18, which ordered them to provide the information to the Education Department.

The men did not speak during the brief appearance and did not address reporters afterwards. The case returns to court in February.

The Mission de l’Esprit-Saint was founded in 1913 by Eugene Richer, a former Montreal policeman also known as Lafleche. Recent estimates suggest the group has several hundred members in the province, many of them given names that honour the group’s founder, such as Eugenie, Richere and Flechette.

A judge had ordered the group to turn over the names and contact information for all children between the ages of six and 16, citing concerns that they’re not being properly educated.

Inspectors from the Education Department visited a building owned by the group’s Montreal chapter twice this fall following a news report by TVA that suggested it was operating schools on its premises.

On a first visit in September, they found desks, classrooms and school supplies, according to court documents. The inspectors also found evidence that while some of the group’s children were home-schooled or attended public schools, others did not appear to be enrolled in any official educational institution.

The group sought permission to appeal the injunctions, saying they violate the group’s privacy and freedom of religion. In court filings, they also denied allegations that they are running an illegal school.

“The group maintains that no child is educated there, and the location and other facilities are used only for religious education on the weekends,” read a Quebec Court of Appeal decision Tuesday.

Justice Benoit Moore denied the group’s request to appeal, saying that he was not convinced the mission’s claims of harm outweigh the public interest in having the case proceed.

Several former members of the secretive group have spoken to the media, alleging it encourages girls to get married as young as 14 and provides little proper education.

A woman who left the Mission de l’Esprit-Saint nine years ago told The Canadian Press last week that at the time she attended school, children were taught no subjects other than French, math and a little English. Christelle Berube said girls were expected to leave school in their early teens to focus on marriage and raising children.

Another former member told TVA she was taught the Earth is not round and other planets don’t exist.

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