Teachers union the latest group to sue Quebec over religious symbols ban

A federation of unions representing 45,000 teachers in Quebec is suing the provincial government over its ban on the wearing of religious symbols by many public employees.

Prepared by a Montreal-based law firm, the lawsuit contains a list of alleged violations by the province

Kindergarten teacher Haniyfa Scott gives a lesson in Montreal in April. Bill 21 prohibits public school teachers from wearing religious symbols like the hijab. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

A federation of unions representing 45,000 teachers in Quebec is suing the provincial government over its ban on the wearing of religious symbols by many public employees.

The lawsuit by the Fédération autonome de l'enseignement (FAE) challenges a state secularism law passed this year that prohibits some civil servants from wearing symbols of religion, such as hijabs and crosses, while at work.

The most contentious rule is that any newly hired police officers, judges, lawyers and teachers are banned from wearing any religious symbols while on duty. Existing employees get an exception, as long as they keep the same job.

Other public sector workers, including doctors, bus drivers and social workers, can wear symbols, as long as their faces are not covered.

The lawsuit, prepared by the Montreal-based firm Gattuso Bourget Mazzone, contains a list of alleged violations by the province.

Rémi Bourget, a partner and the lead lawyer representing the union, said that in order to pass the bill, the Quebec government suspended Canadians' constitutional rights to freedom of religion and equality without discrimination.

"We want the court to declare that the rights of our members were violated by this government; the right to freedom of religion, of course, but also the right to equality, because the vast majority —  if not the totality — of the people who will be impacted are women,'' Bourget told The Associated Press.

In Quebec, 75 per cent of teachers are women, he said.

Several other lawsuits are already in the works, including one filed by a student studying to become a teacher and another being mounted by the English Montreal School Board, the largest English-language board in the province.

'They don't want me to work with them'

Nour Farhat, who wears a Muslim hijab and studied law to become a prosecutor, is among those affected by the law.

The religious symbols law means she can't represent the state as long as she wears a hijab. So she's fighting from the other side. She was hired to represent teachers opposing the law and will be in court to argue against it — in her hijab.

Nour Farhat is a lawyer who wears a Muslim hijab and studied law to become a prosecutor. She is among those affected by Bill 21. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

"I can't work with the government; they don't want me to work with them. Well, now I have the opportunity to work against them,'' Farhat said.

The 28-year-old lawyer said the law known as Bill 21 has encouraged racist beliefs and behaviours in the province.

She said she began receiving insults and death threats by email after a French-language law journal published her op-ed criticizing Bill 21.

Law jeopardizes jobs, union presidents says

FAE president Sylvain Mallette said Bill 21 jeopardizes teachers' jobs and working conditions.

The Quebec provincial government, for its part, intends to take its religious neutrality bill to the Supreme Court if necessary.

Quebec has struggled for years with the question of religious accommodations for minorities. Premier François Legault has warned Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau not to meddle with provincial law.

The lawsuits come at a time when anti-Muslim sentiment is growing in Quebec. In Montreal so far this year, Muslims make up 58 per cent of the people targeted in hate crimes, according to police. More incidents go unreported.