The Current

'Religion is not a race': Quebec's face-covering law heads for court challenge

Civil liberties advocates say Bill 62 infringes on freedom of religion while those who support the law argue it's not "unreasonable" in an open, democratic society.
A legal challenge over the constitutionality of Quebec's face-covering ban was launched earlier this week. (The Canadian Press)

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Quebec's controversial face-covering ban faces its own constitutional challenge.

(The law) excludes and stigmatizes an already vulnerable minority of women.- Ihsaan Gardee, executive director for the National Council of Canadian Muslims

Ihsaan Gardee, the executive director for the National Council of Canadian Muslims, is part of a group launching a legal challenge against Bill 62, calling it "a discriminatory and unnecessary and unconstitutional piece of legislation."

"(The law) excludes and stigmatizes an already vulnerable minority of women, and by extension, the larger Quebec Muslim community," Gardee told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Filed earlier in the week in Quebec Superior Court, the legal challenge contests a section of the province's religious neutrality law under both Quebec's Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Premier Philippe Couillard maintained Bill 62 complied with both the provincial and Canadian charters.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard said Bill 62 is based on a principle shared by the 'vast majority of Canadians.' (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

There are no exact numbers on how many women wear the niqab in Quebec. Estimates vary from 50 to more than 100.

Just because a law is popular ... does not mean it's principled.-  Ihsaan Gardee,

Gardee said the law was an example of politicians aiming for "electoral advantage" in upcoming elections.

"We've seen it in this province. We've seen it federally as well in the 2015 election where rhetoric around Muslims and Islam whether it was veils and citizenship ceremonies or the so-called Barbaric Cultural Practices Act were used to try and leverage and gain votes."

Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée said the law is necessary for communication, identification and security reasons. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Plaintiffs in the case have said they've experienced an increased amount of harassment since the legislation.

Gardee called the law "a popular move."

"You can see that from the polls. But just because a law is popular ... does not mean it's principled."

As for the argument that the legislation is for communication, identification and security, Gardee pointed out that the women who wear the niqab in Quebec have always removed the veil for legitimate purposes of identification security — "whether it's for driver's licences or at airports. And we expect they'll continue to do so."

'Religion is not a race'

Le Journal de Montreal's columnist Lise Ravary said she thinks Bill 62 is a "bad law" because it never really explained its purpose, but she supported the idea behind the legislation.

Why should we tolerate it here, and while in the centre of the Muslim world, it is not tolerated.- Lise Ravary, Le Journal de Montreal's columnist

"In a free, open, rule-of-law society, going about with your face covered and your identity concealed is problematic. There are … many European countries that are, you know, highly democratic and tolerant. I'm thinking about the Netherlands for example that has a law very, very similar to law 62, banning niqab in hospitals and buses and so on."

For critics who've called the legislation racist, Ravary argued, "Religion is not a race."

Warda Naili poses for a photograph on a city bus in Montreal, Oct. 21, 2017. She said she decided to cover her face out of a desire to practise her faith. She is a plaintiff in the legal challenge. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

She countered that niqabs are not allowed either in the hajj pilgrimage.

"Why should we tolerate it here, and while in the centre of the Muslim world, it is not tolerated."

The law requiring that people go about with faces uncovered in an open, democratic society is "not unreasonable," said Ravary.

When asked about Bill 62 being considered discriminatory against identifiable religious groups by the state, Ravary answered, "I am not completely comfortable with it."

"But at the same time, it is, you know, if you are born black or Asian, and you are facing discrimination it's …  it's a terrible thing because it's who you are as a human being but wearing a garment is a choice."

Listen to the full conversation above — including commentary from the Toronto Star's Chantal Hébert.

This segment was produced by Pacinthe Mattar, Julian Uzielli and Ines Colabrese.