EMSB votes to challenge Quebec's religious symbols law in court

The English Montreal School Board has voted in favour of taking the province to court over its religious symbols law.

The commissioners voted 7 in favour, 3 against and 2 abstentions

On Wednesday night, commissioners voted seven in favour and three against to challenge the law in court. (CBC)

The English Montreal School Board has voted in favour of taking the province to court over its religious symbols ban. They're seeking an exemption because they are a linguistic minority.

Last month, the EMSB held off on deciding whether or not it would enforce the religious symbols law, saying it would first refer the matter to the board's human resources committee.

EMSB Chair Angela Mancini described the delay at the time as problematic, saying that "by delaying the discussion in public, we are de facto agreeing to implement the law."

At a meeting Wednesday night, the EMSB human resources committee report was made public. It recommended a legal challenge, based on Section 23 of the Canadian Charter.

During the meeting, seven commissioners voted in favour of the resolution to bring the issue before the courts, with three voting against and two abstentions.

"The whole law goes against all the values that we espouse to as an organization," said Mancini. "I think it breeds intolerance."

She said that taking a stand against the law is an important piece of the board's right to manage its own affairs and protect its employees.

Mancini added, however, that she's concerned the EMSB does not have the backing of the other English school boards and may end up footing the legal bills alone.

English Montreal School Board Chair Angela Mancini said at Wednesday night's meeting that she feels the law 'breeds intolerance.' (CBC)

The law, formerly known as Bill 21, was passed by the Coalition Avenir Québec government and seeks to affirm secularism within the province's civil service.

It bans public teachers, police officers, government lawyers and other authority figures from wearing religious symbols at work.

Teachers already on the job, who remain in their current positions, are exempt under a grandfather clause.

Some commissioners argued that a legal challenge against Bill 21 is not advisable given the ongoing legal challenge over the forced transfer of two EMSB schools.

Vice-chair Joe Ortona said at the meeting that he feels the government is "hostile" to the English minority and to school boards.

"The only recourse which has now been left to us is the courts. And either we have the right to manage and control our school boards, or we don't," he said.

The Commission scolaire de Montréal, the province's largest school board, as well the Lester B. Pearson School Board, have decided to apply the law, after earlier expressing reservations on moral and practical grounds.

Earlier this month, the CSDM revealed three teachers took off their religious symbols in order to be able to sign a contract. 

The board would not specify what kind of symbols the teachers wore.

Legal challenge already underway

The National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association are seeking an appeal after a Quebec Superior Court justice refused their emergency request to temporarily freeze parts of the law. 

In affidavits submitted last week, several Muslim women testified how they were denied employment opportunities or internships by Montreal school boards because they wear a headscarf.

Two weeks ago, the government released a scathing report on the EMSB, criticizing it for a culture of dysfunction and lack of leadership and recommending the EMSB be stripped of its powers. 

The report says the internal conflict between the majority of school commissioners has rendered the council almost paralyzed as a decision-making body and adversely affects its ability to serve students.

For her part, Mancini responded to the report by saying she is not opposed to the idea of putting the board under trusteeship.

With files from Antoni Nerestant