Quebec’s Court of Appeal rejected a bid to suspend the province’s secularism law on Thursday, but challengers of the law have promised to keep fighting.
The law, commonly referred to as Bill 21, prohibits some public employees — including teachers, police officers and judges — from wearing religious symbols in the workplace.
The National Council of Canadian Muslims, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and a university student who wears the hijab argued the ban targets women and harms minority groups.
Mustafa Farooq, the executive director of NCCM, said he was “disappointed” with the decision, but said the organization would continue to push ahead.
“We are reviewing our options now. We will always stand to protect the rights of all Quebecers,” he said.
The CCLA also pledged to keep fighting despite the “devastating decision.”
Here’s a look at what happened in the ruling, and what could happen next.
What’s happened this week?
In a 2-1 ruling, all three judges acknowledged the law is causing harm that may be serious and irreparable to some of those affected.
Justice Dominique Belanger said it was “apparent” that the law violates the fundamental rights of certain individuals, such as female teaching graduates who could be denied employment for wearing the Muslim hijab.
Nevertheless, Belanger concluded Quebec’s use of the notwithstanding clause means the law should not be suspended until the case can be heard on its merits next year.
Justice Robert Mainville, who also decided to reject the appeal, said that while the evidence suggested some people would suffer “what may be characterized as serious and irreparable harm,” he said the appellants had not adequately demonstrated the law disproportionately targets women — which is a key argument, since the notwithstanding clause is not applicable to the section of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms granting equal rights to the sexes.
“While we can certainly conclude that the majority of teachers are women, we can also reasonably conclude that the majority of police officers are men,” Mainville wrote.
Mainville said it would be “imprudent” to assume the law would be declared unconstitutional, since several other western democracies have successfully enacted similar legislation.
Balpreet Singh, who works as the legal counsel for the World Sikh Organization of Canada, told Global News that the agreement over the law causing harm is important.
The WSO is an intervener in the court challenge.
“The fact that it’s clear that harm is taking place — people are leaving their homes and having to move elsewhere to earn a livelihood — it’s clear that this is a pressing issue, so we’re disappointed that the court didn’t allow the injunction,” Singh said.
Possible next steps
There are several different legal challenges against the Quebec law, all of which argue it violates the constitutional rights of Canadians.
Singh explained three of the challenges will be heard together next year, with the actual hearings being held in October.
“The legal battle is probably going to be a long one, so the Superior Court is going to hear it,” he explained.
“It’s almost inevitable that whatever side loses the legal battle will appeal it.”
That’s why he suspects the process will be a long one, lasting at least more than a year.
“It’s hard to say how long the battle will take.”
While the legal proceedings continue, politicians continue to be asked on to weigh in on the controversial matter.
A day after the court decision, Quebec Premier Francois Legault said he asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a meeting to stay out of the contentious debate.
Legault said the law is supported by a majority of Quebecers and Trudeau should respect their wishes. Meanwhile, Trudeau has left open the possibility of federal intervention in the case, but has so far stayed on the sidelines.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh also commented on the court decision Thursday, expressing he was “sad” about the outcome. However, he noted the courts had yet to rule on the substance of the issue.
“The law is something I’ve heard from a lot of people is discriminatory. It makes people think they don’t belong, and they’re afraid of a law like that,” he said.
— With files from The Canadian Press