Civil rights groups seek again to freeze Quebec secularism law

Two civil liberties groups who launched the first of three legal challenges to Quebec's secularism law are making their case before the province's highest court today. 

Appeal Court hears arguments after Superior Court judge refused to grant an injunction against Bill 21

Members of the National Council of Muslims Mustafa Farooq, left, and Bochra Manai, centre, and Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, a member of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, speak to reporters at the Quebec Court of Appeal after Tuesday's hearing. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

The two civil liberties groups that mounted an early legal challenge to Quebec's secularism law were at the Quebec Court of Appeal today making a second attempt to have parts of the law suspended while their challenge is considered.

When the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) and Canadian Civil Liberties Association launched their challenge June 17 — a day after the law was passed — they also filed a request for an injunction, a legal measure that would have frozen parts of the law while waiting for the courts to weigh in on the bigger constitutional question.

On July 18, a Quebec Superior Court Judge refused to grant that injunction. 

A few days later, the groups filed an appeal of the refusal.

The appeal was heard today, in a packed Montreal courtroom in which many of the spectators wore hijabs.

The organizations argued the law — which bans public school teachers, police officers, government lawyers and other authority figures from wearing religious symbols at work — is causing immediate and irreparable harm. 

They said teachers in particular have seen livelihoods and careers threatened. 

Lives 'ruined'

Catherine McKenzie, a lawyer representing the groups, argued Bill 21 violates the "dignity and self-worth" of people who wear religious symbols. 

"Women sitting right here in this room today, women with mortgages and student loans -- they can't get a job," McKenzie told the panel of three judges.

"People's lives are being ruined. People are being forced to leave their professions. People are being forced to leave this province," she continued. 

The provincial government included the constitutional notwithstanding clause in the law to prevent it from being struck down as a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

McKenzie said the notwithstanding clause doesn't exempt the law from legal challenges. 

Eric Cantin, a lawyer for the provincial justice department, argued the secularism law represented the will of the majority as reflected in the legislature. and that maintaining it was in the public interest.

"If you suspend parts of this law, it would be like you're saying the notwithstanding clause doesn't exist," Cantin told the judges.

"The law should apply until such time as the legal questions around its constitutionality are settled. It's as simple as that," Cantin added.

Women leave the Quebec Court of Appeal in Montreal on Tuesday after a hearing realted to a challenge of Bill 21. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

The panel of judges said it would take time to consider the arguments before releasing a written decision. Appeal court decisions generally take several weeks to draft. 

Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, a spokesperson for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, told reporters after the hearing she was pleased with the arguments the group's lawyers put forward.

"Five and a half long months have passed since this law was introduced, so there is new evidence that was brought forward and new arguments that have been made," Mendelsohn Aviv said.

"The judges were listening, they were paying attention, they asked excellent questions," she added. 

In the meantime the legal challenge on the substance of the law will continue. Two other separate legal challenges to Bill 21 have also been filed since it came into effect.


With files from Steve Rukavina


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