New rules for Muslim women who wear face veils in Quebec are plagued by “confusion” and unlikely to survive a constitutional challenge, a Superior Court judge says in a harsh legal rebuke to the province’s religious neutrality law.
The ruling marks the latest setback for Bill 62, controversial legislation passed by the Liberal government of Philippe Couillard last year that requires people to show their faces when obtaining public services such as taking the bus or picking up a child at daycare.
Superior Court Justice Marc-André Blanchard criticized the law as he extended the suspension of face-veil limits on Thursday. His ruling is evidence that Quebec’s attempt to limit Muslim face veils, even when people transact with the public service, is meeting with resistance from the courts.
Lawyers for the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, as well as a Quebec woman who wears the face-covering niqab, went to court last fall to stop the application of the face-covering rules.
The groups obtained an interim stay in December. It was extended Thursday just ahead of a looming deadline: On July 1, new regulations were to go into effect spelling out how women could ask for an accommodation on religious grounds to keep their veils on while getting a public service.
Under the government’s proposal, women would have to apply for permission to a so-called accommodation officer in various government departments and agencies. There are more than 100 such organizations, from universities and museums to hospitals and police services.
The court said the entire process stood on shaky constitutional ground.
“The Court can only be highly dubious as to the constitutional validity of a legal process that requires a citizen to obtain, in advance, a permission from a state representative to go about her daily life,” Justice Blanchard wrote.
“In a free and democratic society, citizens are not required to obtain, in advance, permission from any state representative to engage in unregulated social behaviour.”
The judge says that as the law now stands, a veiled woman would need to get prior approval from an accommodation officer for everyday activities such as going to a doctor’s appointment or visiting a museum.
“If the existing stay is not extended beyond July 1, the fundamental rights and freedoms of women who cover their faces for religious reasons will be seriously infringed,” he wrote.
The court hearing also exposed confusion over how the rules would apply in the case of a veiled woman taking the bus. While Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée said in May that it would not be up to an individual bus driver to grant an exemption lawyers for the Attorney-General of Quebec said in court the decision would, in fact, be taken by individual drivers.
Justice Blanchard said the process showed “significant confusion and ambiguity.”
The latest court decision means women who wear the niqab or burka in Quebec can continue accessing public services without showing their faces. Catherine McKenzie, the Montreal lawyer who represented the plaintiffs, said the Thursday decision shows Bill 62 “is being met with skepticism by the courts.”
“This law, which was going to have a huge impact on these women, is stayed for now,” Ms. McKenzie said in an interview. “They’re all breathing a sigh of relief. They felt targeted and don’t understand … they thought that Canada was a tolerant and inclusive place, and feel this law singles them out.”
The Liberals’ Bill 62 is the result of a decade of wrenching debate in Quebec over the place of religious minorities in a province that advocates for state religious neutrality. All three main political parties, which head into a general election in the fall, favour placing varying degrees of restrictions on the display of religious garb in the public service.