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religion and secularism

Protesters opposing Bill 62 and racism march during a demonstration in Montreal on Nov. 12, 2017.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

A judge has suspended Quebec's requirement that people show their faces to obtain public services, dealing the province's controversial "religious neutrality" law its first legal setback.

The Superior Court ruling on Friday means that, for now, people in Quebec who wear the Muslim niqab or burka can continue accessing services such as taking the bus or borrowing a library book without showing their faces.

Since the adoption of Bill 62 by the Quebec National Assembly in October, it has been illegal for anyone in the province to give or obtain public services without showing their face. The law contained provisions to obtain a religious accommodation, but those rules were not yet in place.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims and Canadian Civil Liberties Association went to court to seek the suspension of the face-covering provisions, arguing the matter was urgent because women who wore face coverings were facing harassment and discrimination.

Friday's decision by Justice Babak Barin has the effect of staying the face-covering rule until accommodation guidelines are set up, or a full constitutional challenge to the law is heard.

"This is a temporary victory," Catherine McKenzie, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said in an interview on Friday. "In real terms, it means that [women in face veils] can go back to their lives the way they were before this law came into effect. On a day-to-day basis, hopefully they will feel much freer about going out, and they won't have to fear getting on a bus or going to school."

While Bill 62 would allow people in face veils to seek accommodations on religious grounds, the guidelines for obtaining them have not been established yet by the Quebec Minister of Justice, the judge noted. If legislators felt accommodation requests were important, they should have ensured they came into force at the same time as the law, he said.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims welcomed Friday's ruling. Executive director Ihsaan Gardee described it as "a successful first step in our legal action challenging a law that we firmly believe is both discriminatory and unconstitutional."

Warda Naili, a Quebec woman who wears the niqab and is a plaintiff in the case, says she was relieved by Friday's judgment because she has avoided leaving her house since Bill 62 came into effect. "This gives me back a sense of security and normality," said Ms. Naili, who was born Marie-Michelle Lacoste.

The Trudeau government has openly expressed concerns about Bill 62 and said it is closely monitoring the court challenge, leaving open the possibility it could intervene in the matter.

Justin Trudeau weighs in further on the Quebec law banning people from covering their faces while receiving public services. The prime minister says it is not the role of government to tell women what they can or can’t wear.

The Canadian Press

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