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Quebec’s top court refuses to suspend province’s secularism law

Quebec Court of Appeals rejects bid to stay portions of religious symbols ban
WATCH: In a 2-1 decision, the Quebec Court of Appeals has refused to suspend the Province's controversial Bill 21. The court was asked to rule on a request to stay sections of Bill 21, while a decision on its constitutionality is pending. Global's Amanda Jelowicki explains.

The Quebec Court of Appeal has rejected a challenge from Canadian civil rights groups to suspend parts of the province’s secularism law, known as Bill 21.

The province’s highest court handed down its 2-1 ruling on Thursday afternoon on the application for a stay of the religious symbols ban until a full legal challenge could be heard in Quebec Superior Court.

While the three judges acknowledge the law is causing harm that may be irreparable to teachers who wear the hijab, the majority agreed the province’s use of the notwithstanding clause means it should not be suspended.

Bill 21 prohibits some employees in positions of authority — including teachers, police officers and judges — from wearing religious symbols in the workplace. It was adopted in the provincial legislature in June.

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

Before the court, the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) and a university student who wears the hijab argued the ban targets women and harms minority groups.

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Mustafa Farooq, the executive director of the NCCM, said in a statement on Thursday that the applicants are disappointed with the result but won’t stop fighting for the rights of Quebecers and Canadians.

“We are reviewing our options now,” he said. “We will always stand to protect the rights of all Quebecers.”

In November, the civil liberties groups appeared before Quebec’s highest court after their request for an immediate stay of some of the law’s provisions was rejected by a Superior Court judge in the summer. Justice Michel Yergeau ruled Bill 21 would remain in effect since the applicants did not demonstrate harm warranting a stay.

However, the province’s chief justice, Nicole Duval Hesler, granted the applicants leave to appeal the decision. She was one of three judges hearing the case before the appeal court.

The decision comes as Duval Hesler is the target of complaints to the Canadian Judicial Council over her hearing the legal challenge to Bill 21.

In the ruling, two judges maintained the decision of Yergeau while Duval Hesler partially ruled in favour of the appeal.

READ MORE: As criticism mounts, Quebec’s chief justice should withdraw from Bill 21 hearing: PQ

The religious neutrality law has been widely criticized, sparking protests in Montreal and several legal challenges since it was adopted earlier this year.

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The English Montreal School Board, the province’s largest English-language school board, filed a lawsuit in October. It argues Bill 21 is hindering its ability to hire qualified teachers.

The Fédération Autonome de l’Enseignement a union representing 45,000 teachers in Quebec launched its own lawsuit in November.

The provincial government, meanwhile, has staunchly defended the secularism law. Premier François Legault maintains it has a support of a majority of Quebecers.

Both the province and the law’s opponents have said they are willing to take Bill 21 to the Supreme Court if necessary.

Fate of controversial secularism law in the hands of Quebec’s top court
Fate of controversial secularism law in the hands of Quebec’s top court

— With files from the Canadian Press