The English Montreal School Board (EMSB) has filed a legal challenge to Quebec’s secularism law known as Bill 21 in Quebec Superior Court.
The law prohibits civil servants in positions of authority including teachers, school principals, police officers and judges, from wearing religious symbols while at work.
Filed by Power Law on behalf of the EMSB’s Council of Commissioners, the lawsuit alleges that Bill 21 is forcing the school board to promote gender bias because it specifically targets Muslim women who wear a hijab.
The EMSB is basing its claim on Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that guarantees minority language educational rights to English-speaking minorities in Quebec.
The board argues it is dealing with a teacher shortage and the province’s religious ban is restricting its ability to hire qualified teachers.
The EMSB points to three candidates who wear the hijab and were interviewed before Bill 21 was tabled and are not working as teachers despite meeting all the necessary requirements.
Furthermore, the board says a grandfather clause which allows employees hired before Bill 21 to keep their jobs is too limited in scope. Current employees can’t apply for different positions within the same institution unless they remove their religious symbols.
That, according to the EMSB, makes already difficult positions to fill even harder by limiting who can get promoted from teacher to principal.
This is the second legal challenge against the Coalition Avenir Quebec’s (CAQ) religious neutrality law.
The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) filed an injunction request in Quebec Superior court. It was denied but the organizations were granted leave to appeal meaning the case has moved on to Quebec’s Appellate Court.
The CAQ government has defended the secularism law, saying it enjoys strong support among Quebecers. It notably put party leaders on notice in the recent federal election about joining court challenges.
On Thursday, Quebec Education Minister Jean-François Roberge pushed back at the notion that Muslim women are disproportionately targeted by the law, saying there’s no evidence of that.
“I don’t think so. It’s not racist. It’s not sexist. It’s just the way that Quebecers want to have people with authority,” Roberge told reporters in Montreal. “We don’t want people with authority … to wear religious symbols — it’s as simple as that. It applies to men and women.”
— With files from the Canadian Press