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Quebec government lawyers tell court Bill 21 is not a violation of freedoms

Law prohibits state employees in leadership positions from wearing religious symbols in the workplace


By Stephanie Marin

MONTREAL — The Quebec government does not believe its secularism law violates freedom of religion, but rather it serves to frame it, one of its lawyers told a court Wednesday.

As those defending the law began final arguments in the court challenge, Quebec government lawyers said the ban on religious symbols is very specific and doesn’t infringe on people’s right to practise their religion outside the workplace.

The law, known as Bill 21, forbids the wearing of religious symbols such as turbans, kippas and hijabs for employees of the state deemed to be in positions of authority, including police officers and teachers.

Eric Cantin, a lawyer for Quebec’s attorney general, told Quebec Superior Court Justice Marc-Andre Blanchard that the debate over religious symbols is an emotionally charged one that’s been around a long time. But his comment that it did not infringe on fundamental freedoms caught the judge’s attention.

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Those challenging have said the law, adopted in July 2019, is discriminatory against religious minorities, in particular Muslim women.

‘Justified constraint’

Blanchard reminded Cantin, one of several government lawyers, that hijab-wearing teachers testified at the outset they could not imagine teaching without wearing it. The judge asked what was the point of the freedom if it is denied in the classroom.

“The official position of the attorney general is there’s no violation,” Cantin said, arguing that legislators aimed to “frame” the wearing of symbols rather than prohibit them altogether, describing it as “a justified constraint.”

“Freedom of religion is not absolute, in any context,” Cantin added, noting that outside the workplace, citizens are free to wear religious symbols as they please.

Several groups are contesting the law from different angles in the current trial, but they are limited because Bill 21 invokes the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause, shielding it from most charter challenges.

The plaintiffs are attempting to get around this difficulty by arguing that the law violates other articles and principles of the charter that are not shielded by the notwithstanding clause.

The groups challenging the law include the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, individual teachers who wear religious symbols, the English Montreal School Board and the Federation autonome de l’enseignement, a teachers’ union.

They want the law declared invalid, either in part or as a whole.

The court began hearing from witnesses on Nov. 2 and has set aside 14 days for final arguments. Cantin said the government’s closing arguments, from multiple lawyers, are expected to take at least two days. Lawyers for other groups that support Bill 21 will also make arguments.