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Legal challenge against Quebec’s secularism law gets underway in Montreal

Click to play video 'Trial challenging Bill 21 gets underway in Montreal court' Trial challenging Bill 21 gets underway in Montreal court
WATCH: Opponents of Bill 21 are finally having their long-awaited day in court: the trial in the legal case against it began in a Montreal courtroom Monday. As Global's Dan Spector reports, the day began with a fervent demonstration just outside – Nov 2, 2020

A Quebec teacher told the court she feels excluded in society during the first day of a legal challenge to the province’s secularism law, which prohibits some public-sector workers from wearing religious symbols at work.

The case being heard Monday in Montreal combines four different lawsuits seeking to have the law or parts of it struck down. It is expected to last at least five weeks.

Quebec’s religious neutrality law, known as Bill 21, passed in the provincial legislature in 2019 by a vote of 75-35. It bars police officers, teachers and judges from wearing religious garb at work, though there are some exceptions.

The ban fulfilled Premier François Legault’s campaign promise to tackle religious neutrality in the province, but the debate surrounding secularism has generated protests across Quebec.

READ MORE: Supreme Court of Canada won’t hear bid to suspend Quebec’s secularism law

Ichrak Nourel Hak, a teacher who wears the hijab, told the court Monday she feels excluded from society. She received her teaching degree in September and was hired by a private school that isn’t subject to Bill 21.

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She says that her head scarf is not only a part of her religion, it’s a part of her identity and that wearing it is also a way for her to fight stereotypes against Muslim women.

“I want to show that there are fulfilled women who want to give back to society what they have received,” she said.

Click to play video 'Law students protest Bill 21' Law students protest Bill 21
Law students protest Bill 21 – Nov 2, 2020

Guillaume Rousseau is with the Mouvement laïque québécois, a group arguing on behalf of parents who do not want teachers wearing religious symbols while teaching their children.

He says the secularism law isn’t discriminatory and argues that Nourel Hak’s case shows that religious symbols don’t prevent teachers from finding jobs.

“The fact that some want to practice their religion, wear a religious symbol, while they’re representing the state, that could cause, in fact, discrimination against those who don’t wish to have their children with in a class with a teacher with a religious symbol,” he said.

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

Quebec’s premier, for his part, has stood firm on the legislation, saying it enjoys support from a majority of the public. Legault has called Bill 21 “moderate” and “balanced.”

To protect the controversial bill from legal challenges, the Quebec government had invoked the rarely used “notwithstanding clause” section of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But opponents are arguing that Bill 21 is actually a piece of criminal legislation, which is beyond the scope of provincial jurisdiction. They’re also arguing that it violates Section 28 of the Charter, the gender equality provision, which is not covered by the notwithstanding clause.

“We are here to challenge an unjust and unconstitutional law that hurts people of different sex, religion and their race,” said Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, the executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Education Minister Jean-François Roberge has argued in the past that the law is “not racist or sexist” since it applies to both men and women.

Protest held outside courthouse

The beginning of the case at the Montreal courthouse also brought forth a protest from McGill University’s Muslim Law Students’ Association on Monday morning.

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“It’s unfair. It’s unjust,” said law student Khadija Ahmed. “It imposes a glass ceiling on all of us who want to be religious and work in the public sector.

“There is no contradiction between a religious person and someone who is neutral.”

Robert Leckey, the dean of McGill’s law faculty, said the notion that the province is completely neutral when it comes to religion is “selective.”

“A major figure dies and everyone is lined up at the Notre-Dame Basilica for a religious state funeral,” he said. “So, the idea that Quebec is purely secular or that there is no space for religious affliction is highly selective.”

With files from Global News’ Brayden Jagger Haines, Dan Spector and The Canadian Press