Arguments for the reinstatement of a ban on face coverings at citizenship ceremonies by lawyers for the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration are underway at the Federal Court of Appeal in Ottawa.

The government wants the court to reverse a decision by Federal Court Judge Keith Boswell that its policy on face coverings during the oath-taking is unlawful. 

The case started with a lawsuit from Zunera Ishaq, a devout Muslim who moved to Ontario from Pakistan in 2008 to join her husband. Ishaq agreed to remove her niqab for an official before writing and passing her citizenship test two years ago, but she objects to unveiling in public at the oath-taking ceremony.

In his ruling, Boswell said the government policy, introduced in 2011, violates the Citizenship Act, which states citizenship judges must allow the greatest possible religious freedom when administering the oath. Boswell asked how that would be possible, "if the policy requires candidates to violate or renounce a basic tenet of their religion."

Within days, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the government would appeal.

"I believe, I think most Canadians believe, it is offensive that someone would hide their identity at the very moment they are committing to join the Canadian family," said Harper.

Change to Citizenship Act sought

In its notice of appeal, lawyers for the federal government argued Boswell committed several errors in fact and law.
For good measure, on the last day Parliament sat before the summer break, the government tabled the Oath of Citizenship Act, which would again seek to enshrine in law that people who want to become Canadian citizens must uncover their faces while taking the oath.

The Ontario government is intervening in the case. Its position, filed last week, is that the ban discriminates against Muslim women and that "visual inspection of a person's face does not prove that the person has actually spoken the words of the oath or affirmation. The proof is already provided by the existing requirement that citizenship candidates sign a certificate certifying they have taken the oath or affirmation."

Ishaq is still a permanent resident. She has not taken the oath, because when the court agreed to hear the government's appeal, it issued a temporary stay on the lower court's ruling.