English-language school boards prepare to use Quebec's new guidelines on religious accommodation

A new set of provincial criteria to guide public agencies in granting religious accommodation requests goes into effect July 1.

New provincial criteria to grant religious accommodation requests goes into effect July 1

Sébastien Joly, president of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers, says the province's directives for religious accommodation requests must be clear and objective. (Cathy Senay/CBC News)

The Quebec government's new guidelines to help public bodies decide whether to grant religious accommodation requests are coming into effect today.

However, the union representing 8,000 teachers at English-language school boards across the province says it needs more information about what resources are in place to respond to such requests.

The government's criteria must be clear and objective, said Sébastien Joly, president of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers, which represents teachers at nine English-language school boards, as well as the Commission scolaire du Littoral on Quebec's North Shore.

Joly said the decisions should be made by a designated official at each school board, and not by teachers or other staff members.

"The school boards are the ones who [should] make the decisions in the end," he told CBC News.

"Hopefully they will put in place criteria clear enough … within the school establishments so that it will be easy to apply. It's for them to determine that."

New guidelines released in May

The provincial government released new criteria to handle religious accommodation requests in May.

Coming into effect July 1, the guidelines state that a request must be serious and "based on a sincere belief," and that the requested accommodation adheres to the principles of equality between men and women and non-discrimination, among other things.

The new rules are being applied just as a Quebec court issued an injunction against part of the province's controversial religious neutrality law which deals with individuals giving and receiving public services with their faces covered.

On Thursday, Quebec Superior Court Justice Marc-André Blanchard suspended Section 10 of the law, which The National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association had argued discriminates against Muslim women who wear niqab​s or burkas.

A constitutional challenge was also filed against the legislation last year, and a first injunction blocking Article 10's implementation was ordered shortly thereafter.

Last week's injunction has suspended the application of Section 10 once again until a ruling is issued in the constitutional challenge.

So while the guidelines won't apply to Section 10, they will be used to determine other religious accommodation requests in Quebec.

That could include requests to take days off to observe a religious holiday, or for a female student who wants to be exempted from attending phys-ed classes with her male counterparts for religious reasons, for example.

The French-language Commission scolaire de Montréal (CSDM) says it approved 441 days off for religious holidays during the 2015-2016 school year.

English school boards don't get many requests

Sylvain Racette, chair of the Association of Directors of English School Boards of Quebec, said English-language school boards in the province don't get many religious accommodation requests to begin with.

He said the school boards are prepared, however, and most have designated accommodation officers to handle requests.

"General requests should be directed to them," said Racette, who is also the director general of the Riverside School Board on Montreal's South Shore.

"We don't foresee any problems in the application of these guidelines," he told CBC News.

With files from Cathy Senay and Ben Shingler