Bill 21: More groups join bid to have Supreme Court rule on Quebec’s secularism law

The National Council of Canadian Muslims & Canadian Civil Liberties Association are asking the Supreme Court to rule on Bill 21 – Quebec’s ban on religious symbols in public life.

By News Staff

The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) and Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) have filed leave to appeal with the Supreme Court.

They are asking Canada’s highest court to pass judgement on Bill 21, Quebec’s controversial religious symbols ban.

“The Charter is not just a piece of paper that can be ripped apart and shred without consequences,” said Harini Sivalingam, the CCLA’s director of equality program.

“Bill 21 is a discriminatory piece of legislation that should not escape judicial scrutiny.”

The groups are opposing the Quebec government’s use of the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause to shield the law from Charter challenges.

“By using the notwithstanding clause in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to deliberately discriminate against its own citizens for political gain, the (François) Legault government set the terrible precedent for any legislator in the country to take away the most sacred rights and freedoms of any group of Canadians based on their identity, simply because they think it’s popular or politically expedient,” said NCCM CEO Stephen Brown.

Passed in 2019, Bill 21 says public workers in positions of authority cannot wear religious symbols while on the job. This includes, but isn’t limited to, crucifixes, hijabs, turbans, or the kippah. The Quebec Court of Appeal upheld the law in a ruling in February.

The English Montreal School Board (EMSB) and a major Quebec teachers’ union, the Fédération autonome de l’enseignement (FAE), are also seeking to challenge the secularism law before the Supreme Court.

The federal government has indicated it would participate if a challenge is heard by the high court.

Though qualified to teach in Quebec, Fatima Ahmad cannot work in public schools without violating her religious beliefs. She was in McGill University’s education program when the bill passed.

“For people who are religious, they shouldn’t have to choose between their religious belief and their livelihood,” Ahmad said. “Both of them are extremely important to them. Nobody should be forced to choose between these two things.”

Though Bill 21 has faced intense public protest, polling shows more than half of Quebecers still support it. But law professor Eric Adams says the entire point of Charter rights is to protect people when it may be unpopular.

“We don’t need the rights to protect popular things that governments do,” said Adams, who teaches at the University of Alberta. “We need rights to stop governments form interfering with rights, when it would be popular to interfere with those rights.”

–With files from Xiaoli Li, CityNews

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