Judge suspends Quebec face-covering ban, says it appears to violate charter

The portion of Quebec's religious neutrality law that dictates when Quebecers must leave their faces uncovered in order to receive public services has been suspended for a second time, only days before it was slated to go into effect.

Ruling says 'irreparable harm will be caused to Muslim women' if law goes into effect

The Quebec government's religious neutrality law, previously known as Bill 62, has been the subject of controversy and court challenges. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

The portion of Quebec's religious neutrality law that dictates when Quebecers must leave their faces uncovered in order to receive public services has been suspended for a second time, only days before it was slated to go into effect.

Quebec Superior Court Justice Marc-André Blanchard issued the ruling Thursday, handing another victory to civil liberties groups that argue the law discriminates against Muslim women who wear niqab​s or burkas.

Blanchard said Section 10, which pertains to face coverings, appears to be "a violation" of the Canadian and Quebec charters, which "provide for freedom of conscience and religion."

The judge concluded that "irreparable harm will be caused to Muslim women" if the relevant section of the law had gone into effect on July 1. 

He ordered Section 10 suspended until a challenge to the law is heard in court.

The same portion of the law was suspended in December.

In that ruling, another Quebec Superior Court justice ordered the provincial government to produce accommodation guidelines dictating how the restrictions on face coverings would work in practice.

Those guidelines are slated to go into effect July 1, but the sections on face coverings will now no longer apply. 

The civil rights groups challenging the law argued the guidelines place a greater burden on the individuals affected.

"We're very happy with the decision," said Catherine McKenzie, who was part of the legal team that challenged the law's constitutionality on behalf of Warda Naili, a Quebec woman who wears a niqab.

"This law has an important impact on women who cover their faces for religious reasons. Women were going to be potentially cut off from very basic services so it was important for us to ask for the law to be stayed again."

A spokesperson for Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée, who has been the point person on the law, said the government is analyzing the judgment and that it is still within the 30-day appeal period.

'Confusion and uncertainty'

In his ruling, Blanchard also noted there is still "confusion and uncertainty" about how the process will work.

The guidelines, released in May, state that exemptions to the law, previously known as Bill 62, can only be granted to individuals on religious grounds if the demand is serious, doesn't violate the rights of others and doesn't impose "undue hardships."

Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée has been the point person for the province's religious neutrality law. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

The Quebec government left it up to individual public bodies, however, to decide how to handle accommodation requests, and requires each body to appoint an official to make those decisions. 

When the guidelines were announced in May, Vallée said each request needs to be taken in its own context.

"If a person wearing a burka or a niqab wants to make a request, that request will be processed," said Vallée.

"It would be determined on a case by case [basis], following a request. Is this someone who has a sincere belief who is wearing this piece of clothing regularly, in their daily life, or if the request is being put forward with the aim of getting an advantage."

With files from Cathy Senay

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