Hijab-wearing woman should be allowed to testify, Harper spokesman says

Prime Minister Stephen Harper doesn't agree with a Quebec Court judge's controversial decision to refuse to hear a woman's case because she was wearing a hijab, a spokesman says.

Quebec Judge Eliana Marengo's refusal to hear case of woman wearing headscarf sparks widespread debate

A spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper has weighed in on a Quebec Court judge's controversial decision. (Reuters)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper doesn't agree with a Quebec Court judge's controversial decision to refuse to hear a woman's case because she was wearing a hijab, a spokesman says.

"If someone is not covering their face, we believe they should be allowed to testify," Harper spokesman Stephen Lecce said in a one-line statement.

The comment comes following a CBC News report Thursday that Judge Eliana Marengo told a woman in a Montreal courtroom she would not hear her case until she removed her hijab.

Rania El-Alloul was in court Tuesday to apply to get her car back after it was seized by Quebec's automobile insurance board, the SAAQ, because her son had been driving with a suspended licence.

The incident has sparked widespread discussion across Canada and especially in Quebec, where the province has had a heated debate about secularism and the limits of reasonable accommodation.

Rania El-Alloul says she was told by a Quebec judge to remove her headscarf immediately or apply for a postponement in order to consult a lawyer. (CBC)
On Friday, Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair said El-Alloul should have been allowed to plead her case while wearing a headscarf.

"It's a simple matter of that person's rights as a Canadian," he said.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau also weighed in, describing the incident as "just plain wrong."

The National Council of Canadian Muslims, meanwhile, called on the Court of Quebec and the Attorney-General of Quebec to reaffirm the right of all Canadians to exercise their religious freedom in a courtroom.

"The judge's refusal to hear this woman's case because she wore a headscarf is contrary to the established constitutional rights of Canadians," Ihsaan Gardee, the group's executive director, said in a statement.

Quebec premier 'disturbed' by incident

Premier Philippe Couillard said he was troubled by the incident, but was reluctant to say outright whether he disagreed with the decision.

"I will be very careful because the judge is sovereign in her decisions, in her courtroom," Couillard told reporters in Quebec City. 

"I am a little bit disturbed by this event, I must say."

Couillard said an infringement on religious freedom is only justified in certain situations, such as when an individual needs to be identified or security is an issue.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard wouldn't say outright whether he disagreed with Judge Eliana Marengo's decision. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)
Bernard Drainville, a leadership hopeful for the Opposition Parti Québécois and the architect of the party's secular charter, said the controversy wouldn't have come about if there were clearly defined rules in the province.

"There's no clear understanding of what is permitted and what is prohibited," he said. 

Drainville's proposed charter would have required employees in the public service, such as judges, to be neutral when it comes to religion, but wouldn't require the same from average citizens. 

Haroun Bouazzi, co-president of the Association of Muslims and Arabs for a Secular Quebec, said he was "totally shocked." 

"This woman has been penalized because of her belief, which makes the state not neutral anymore," Bouazzi said.

"We are in communication with the victim and a couple of lawyers and we think judicial procedure should be started."

Court spokeswoman Annie-Claude Bergeron said Friday the judge's decision was final.

"In law, you can't revise your own ruling," Bergeron said.

Judge Marengo did not respond to requests for comment.

Bergeron said "judges will not comment on their own decisions."


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