Bill 21: Five things about Quebec’s contentious secularism law

Click to play video: 'Quebec’s decision to renew notwithstanding clause to protect secularism law met with some criticism'
Quebec’s decision to renew notwithstanding clause to protect secularism law met with some criticism
Community groups are speaking out against the Quebec government's decision to renew its use of the notwithstanding clause, to protect its controversial secularism law. The province tabled a bill earlier this week, hoping to protect the law, known as Bill 21, for another five years. Global’s Franca Mignacca reports. – Feb 9, 2024

Quebec’s secularism law, known as Bill 21, has faced numerous court challenges since it was adopted nearly five years ago, with the Quebec Court of Appeal the latest to weigh in.

Here’s a look at the law.

What is Bill 21?

Bill 21 was passed in June 2019 and confirmed the province’s secular status. Formally called “An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State,” it sets out four principles of Quebec secularism: separation of state and religion, the state’s religious neutrality, the equality of all citizens and freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.

Among its most controversial measures is one forbidding state employees deemed to be in positions of power from wearing religious symbols at work.

Public servants, including teachers, police officers and judges, are forbidden from wearing religious symbols such as a hijab, turban or kippah while working. The legislation also requires people offering and receiving government services to have their face uncovered while doing so. The Quebec government has described the law as reasonable.

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Who is affected by Bill 21?

The bill included a grandfather clause exempting those who were employed before the bill was tabled, as long as they don’t change jobs, but new hires must abide by the rules. A Quebec Superior Court ruling in April 2021 struck down clauses pertaining to English-language school boards and a ban on provincial legislature members from wearing face coverings, but the law remains in effect until appeals are heard. That means English school boards have not been able to hire as they please.

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The notwithstanding clause

The province pre-emptively used Section 33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedom, known as the notwithstanding clause, to shield the legislation from any court challenges over fundamental rights violations.

François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec government recently announced it plans to renew the use of the clause for another five years. The Charter stipulates that the notwithstanding clause is valid for five years, after which time a government would have to renew it.

Since first coming to power in 2018, Legault’s government has invoked the notwithstanding clause twice — to protect its secularism law and, later, its French language law reform, known as Bill 96.

Click to play video: 'Quebec businesses feeling the heat over having to add French to signs'
Quebec businesses feeling the heat over having to add French to signs

Opposition to Bill 21

While the Quebec government has repeatedly called Bill 21 a moderate law that enjoys support from a majority of Quebecers, it has sparked outrage among religious minorities, both in Quebec and elsewhere in the country. Critics argue it targets racialized minorities who choose to practice their faith and prevents them from working in parts of the public sector without comprising their religious beliefs. Federal politicians have also been critical, and Ottawa has said it would intervene if the case makes its way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

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Legal timeline

The law was challenged on several fronts despite the use of the notwithstanding clause. In April 2021, Quebec Superior Court Justice Marc-André Blanchard issued a 242-page decision that upheld most of the law while acknowledging it violates the rights of Muslim women and has a cruel and dehumanizing impact on those who wear religious symbols.

The Quebec government and groups that had challenged the law announced they would appeal, with the province arguing the court had gone too far and the groups saying it did not go far enough. Three judges from the province’s Court of Appeal heard arguments in November 2022 from lawyers in eight related cases, and at the time they warned lawyers they would likely deliberate for some time.

Their decision Thursday upheld the law and overturned the exemption for English schools.

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