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People attend a demonstration to protest against the Quebec government's Bill 21 in Montreal on June 17, 2019. Bill 21 bans public-sector workers who are deemed to be in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols, such as crosses, hijabs and turbans, on the job.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The federal government will participate in a challenge of Quebec’s controversial religious symbols law, known as Bill 21, should the case end up at the Supreme Court, Justice Minister David Lametti said Wednesday, prompting swift pushback from Quebec’s Premier.

While speaking to reporters in Montreal, Mr. Lametti said that if the case arrives at the country’s top court, it will be, by definition, “a national issue” – adding that “we will be there.”

Since the beginning, he said, the federal government has had concerns about the bill but it left space for Quebeckers to express themselves before the courts on the matter.

Bill 21 bans public-sector workers who are deemed to be in positions of authority – including teachers, judges and police officers – from wearing religious symbols, such as crosses, hijabs and turbans, on the job. It was passed in June, 2019.

Politicians, including Quebec Premier François Legault and Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, have previously said Bill 21 has broad support in the province. But the law has also been subject to criticism by groups, including the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which say it disproportionately affects people who are already marginalized.

In 2019, the civil liberties’ association and the National Council of Canadian Muslims began a court challenge against Bill 21.

Mr. Legault took immediate issue with Mr. Lametti’s remarks on Wednesday given that the Quebec Court of Appeal has not ruled on the case. He told reporters in Quebec City the Trudeau government has shown a “flagrant lack of respect for Quebeckers,” adding that “we know that the majority of Quebeckers agree with Bill 21.”

The National Council of Canadian Muslims said in a statement Wednesday that it has been against the law from the very start and that it has long called for it to be repealed in a province that “has witnessed an alarming level of Islamophobia.”

Why speak up against Bill 21? Because it’s wrong

“We have called on the federal government to show its solidarity with diverse Quebeckers by standing with them in the civil liberties’ battle of our generation,” chief executive officer Mustafa Farooq said. “We are therefore pleased to see Minister Lametti’s announcement today.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau echoed Mr. Lametti’s remarks, saying that if Bill 21 ends up at the Supreme Court, which he called “almost inevitable,” the federal government will be “part of that discussion” to “defend the fundamental rights of all Canadians that have been suspended by this law.”

“This is a matter that matters to all Canadians, regardless of which part of the country they live in,” Mr. Trudeau said in Saskatoon on Wednesday. “This government will continue to be here to defend people’s fundamental rights and freedoms.”

Last December, Mr. Trudeau said he has been clear that he disagrees with Bill 21 and he left the door open to intervening in the legal fight. He also said the best way to fight the law was for Quebeckers to challenge it in the courts.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has previously also said he would support a federal intervention in a court challenge to the bill. Last year, then-Conservative leader Erin O’Toole said it was important to recognize provincial jurisdiction.

Christopher Martin-Chan, a spokesperson for interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen, said Wednesday that the party has been clear it would never introduce a bill of this type at the federal level.

“Party members will have the opportunity to choose the next Conservative leader, who will have a mandate to propose an approach to Bill 21 that balances provinces’ interests with religious freedoms,” he said in a statement.

Mr. Lametti also said Wednesday that the federal government would not rule out a challenge in court to Bill 96, the controversial expansion of Quebec’s language laws. The legislation, which was adopted on Tuesday despite opposition from the province’s English-speaking minority, imposes new rules to reinforce the use of French in the public service, education and business.

The federal Justice Minister said Wednesday that he wants to see how Bill 96 will be implemented, adding its application will be watched “very carefully.”

With reports from Eric Andrew-Gee, Janice Dickson and The Canadian Press

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