Montreal

EMSB prepares legal fight over secularism law that chair says 'breeds intolerance'

"We are allowed to manage and control our schools," said English Montreal School Board chair Angela Mancini. The board intends to invoke Section 23 of the Canadian charter, which guarantees minority language educational rights.

English Montreal School Board says it's turned away 3 potential teachers over religious symbols ban

English Montreal School Board chair Angela Mancini says there's no evidence that the quality of education is affected by teachers wearing religious symbols. (CBC)

The English Montreal School Board (EMSB) is taking the Quebec government to court on yet another front — this time over its secularism law.

The board voted Wednesday to fight the ban, which prevents public servants in positions of authority, including teachers and principals, from wearing religious symbols.

The EMSB will hire a law firm to determine the "appropriate legal recourse'' to challenge the validity of the law, known as Bill 21.

It intends to invoke Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees minority language educational rights to Quebec's English community.

"We are allowed to manage and control our schools," said EMSB chair Angela Mancini said, noting the board has been opposed to the religious symbols ban all along.

"I think that this particular law really breeds a lot of intolerance."

Mancini said three potential teachers, who all wear a hijab, withdrew job applications after being informed of the law during the interview process. A fourth teacher was hired after she said she would remove her hijab.

Teachers who already have jobs at Quebec public schools are entitled to continue to wear religious symbols, as long as they keep working for the same school board and do not change jobs.

Kindergarten teacher Haniyfa Scott gives a lesson in Montreal on April 4, 2019. Only teachers already working at the time the secularism bill was passed are allowed to continue to wear religious symbols. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

The EMSB has set aside $1.3 million to pay its various court battles.

The board already has one legal challenge in the works: it's taken the government to court over Quebec's decision to transfer two of EMSB school buildings to a French-language board.

It also plans to launch a court battle over any attempt by the Coalition Avenir Québec government to abolish school boards — a CAQ campaign promise. That could come as early as next week, when the government is expected to table its school reform legislation.

Challenge 'a big show,' Legault says

Quebec Premier François Legault said Thursday that he sees the EMSB's challenge to the secularism law as "a big show," reiterating that the ban has strong support across the province.

"I'm very confident that we will win," Legault said.

The Quebec English School Boards Association says it remains opposed to the law, and it may join the EMSB's legal challenge as an intervenor.

The law is already being challenged in court by the National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

EMSB will continue to enforce ban

Despite the planned legal action, the EMSB will continue to apply the law, as all other school boards across the province have done.

The Lester B. Pearson School Board, which serves English-speaking students in Montreal's West Island, said so far, one teacher has withdrawn a job application due to the law.

The province's largest French-language school board, the Commission scolaire de Montreal, said it has dealt with five teachers affected by the law this year. Four agreed to remove their symbols, while one did not.

With files from Sudha Krishnan, Cathy Senay and The Canadian Press

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