Urgent stay required to prevent Quebec's religious neutrality law from causing harm, lawyers argue

Arguments were heard in Quebec Superior Court Friday as part of an effort to temporarily strike down parts of the province's controversial religious neutrality law.

Civil rights advocates say face-covering ban violates Quebec and Canadian Charters

Warda Naili, a Quebec woman who converted to Islam, is a plaintiff in the legal challenge. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Quebec's new religious neutrality law is so damaging to Muslim women in the province that parts of it need to be suspended immediately, pending a more complete study of its constitutionality, a Superior Court justice heard Friday. 

The law, introduced as Bill 62, was passed by the Liberal government in October. Among other things, it forces Muslim women to remove face coverings in order to give and receive public services, such as riding a city bus.

Civil rights advocates are seeking an urgent interim stay on Section 10 of the law, which deals specifically with face coverings.  

That section, they argued in court filings, violates guarantees against religious and gender discrimination found in the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  

The plaintiffs in the case — the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Warda Naili, a Quebec woman who wears the niqab — say an urgent stay is necessary in order to prevent the law from causing harm while courts weigh on its constitutionality.

Catherine McKenzie, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, told Quebec Superior Court that since the law came into effect, Naili is too afraid to be in public alone, fearing harassment. 

She argued the law has affected the daily lives of women who don't want to give up their face-covering because of worries they may be harassed or denied access to public services if they go to school, need to see a doctor or apply for a public sector job.

McKenzie pointed out that the Quebec government has said it won't release further guidelines about how the law is to be applied for another several months. 

She questioned why the law needed to take effect now, when the government still doesn't have "all its ducks in a row." 

No stay required, government lawyers argue

Lawyers for the Quebec government argued Friday afternoon that the religious neutrality law should remain as is.

They said the affidavits given by two Muslim women aren't enough to prove they would be denied service based on their religious beliefs.

Both women also said they had no problem showing their faces for security reasons and for identification purposes, which, the lawyers argued, is the purpose of the law and therefore there is no need to stay the law's application.

The judge hasn't said when a decision on the interim stay will be rendered.

With files from CBC's Sudha Krishnan