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Quebec’s Bill 21 leads to ‘irreparable harm,’ civil liberties groups tell Court of Appeal

Fate of controversial secularism law in the hands of Quebec’s top court
WATCH: Opponents to Quebec's Bill 21 argued in Quebec Court of Appeals that the law targets women and is therefore unconstitutional. The plaintiffs say the law violates sexual equality guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Global's Tim Sargeant has more

The Quebec government’s contentious religious symbols ban leads to “real and substantial harm” and unfairly targets women, according to Canadian civil liberties groups who made their arguments before the province’s highest court on Tuesday.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) claim Bill 21, the province’s secularism law, harms minority groups in Quebec and limits employment opportunities.

“Let’s be clear, we are already experiencing the effects of the law today,” said Bochra Manaï, a consultant with the NCCM, from the courthouse in Montreal.

Bill 21 prohibits some employees in positions of authority — including teachers, police officers and judges — from wearing religious symbols while on duty. The law has been widely criticized, but the Legault government maintains it has support from the majority of Quebecers.

READ MORE: Quebec premier says Bill 21 ‘must be respected’ as Trudeau Liberals form minority

The organizations were before Quebec’s top court after their request for an immediate stay of some of the law’s provisions was rejected by a Superior Court judge in July. Justice Michel Yergeau ruled that Bill 21 would continue to apply in full until a challenge of the law could be heard on its merits, saying the applicants did not demonstrate harm warranting a stay.

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In August, Court of Appeal Chief Justice Nicole Duval Hesler granted the NCCM and CCLA leave to appeal the decision.

Catherine McKenzie, a lawyer for the applicants, argued before the court on Tuesday that the impact of Bill 21 is “massive” and that many people in the courtroom are being denied employment based on what they wear.

“The irreparable harm is obvious,” said McKenzie.

The groups claim Quebec’s secularism law also disproportionately affects women and is a direct violation of the sexual equality guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms under Section 28.

“So far, the only people whose rights this has infringed [upon] are women,” said Olga Redko, a lawyer for the applicants.

READ MORE: Marchers show a united front protesting against Bill 21

Éric Cantin, a lawyer for the Quebec government, said the province acted in the public’s best interest when it passed Bill 21.

The three Appeal Court justices are expected to deliberate and render a decision in the coming months.

“I would hardly want to speculate what the justices will do,” said Noa Mendelhsohn Aviv, equality programme director at CCLA. “I certainly hope they will hear and they will make the right decision.”

The province’s controversial religious symbols ban is also facing a legal challenge from a union representing 45,000 teachers in Quebec. The Fédération Autonome de l’Enseignement launched a lawsuit over the religious symbols ban earlier this month.

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Both the Quebec government and its opponents have said they are willing to take Bill 21 to the Supreme Court if necessary.

While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he hasn’t ruled out challenging the legislation, Quebec Premier François Legault has repeatedly warned him not to meddle in the province’s affairs.

Montreal protesters rally in the rain against Bill 21
Montreal protesters rally in the rain against Bill 21

— With files from Global News’ Tim Sargeant, Amanda Jelowicki and the Canadian Press