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Quebec’s religious symbols ban could hurt social cohesion, expert tells court

Demonstrators stand outside the courthouse on the first day of the constitutional challenge to Bill 21 before the Quebec Superior Court in Montreal on Monday, November 2, 2020. Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

A psychology expert told the court challenge to Quebec’s secularism law that Bill 21 may lead to people who are Jewish, Sikh and Muslim feeling increasingly stigmatized and could ultimately hurt social cohesion.

Richard Bourhis told a Montreal courtroom on Friday that studies have shown efforts to sort people into different categories create an “us and them” phenomenon that can reinforce feelings of prejudice between groups.

Bourhis testified on Day 5 of the legal proceedings against Bill 21, the law that bans public sector workers in positions of authority — including teachers and judges — from wearing religious symbols on the job.

He said the law could embolden some people who already have negative perceptions of their counterparts who wear religious symbols, while making people who wear them feel excluded.

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

Feeling discriminated against “can lead people to doubt themselves, to feel sad, stressed, and in poorer mental health,” Bourhis told the court by video link. “They feel rejected by the majority.”

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The Université du Québec à Montréal professor emeritus said the effect of this categorization is greater when it comes to groups that already experience discrimination, particularly Muslim women who wear the hijab.

Bourhis said that while there hasn’t been enough time to study the effects of the law introduced in 2019, data from other studies leads him to believe it could have longer-term effects.

He said minority groups who feel targeted tend to stick together, which can have the effect of isolating them from the rest of society. “Long term, it can hurt the integration of those minorities,” he said.

Bourhis described the law as an example of “indirect discrimination,” because it affects some communities more than others, even if it doesn’t explicitly target a single group.

Click to play video 'Trial challenging Bill 21 gets underway in Montreal court' Trial challenging Bill 21 gets underway in Montreal court
Trial challenging Bill 21 gets underway in Montreal court – Nov 2, 2020

“The law applies to everyone, but it applies to minorities in a more intense way, because they have to choose between their religious signs and their professions,” he said. Young people who wear religious symbols may also feel limited in their career choices or that they don’t belong, he said.

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The hearings in Montreal combine four separate lawsuits challenging Bill 21 into one trial, which is expected to last up to six weeks before Superior Court Justice Marc-Andre Blanchard.

The trial opened this week with testimony from Muslim and Sikh teachers, who described feeling excluded from Quebec society because they choose to wear religious symbols.

Bill 21 makes pre-emptive use of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms notwithstanding clause, which shields legislation from court challenges over violations of fundamental rights.

In a bid to get around the notwithstanding clause, the plaintiffs are invoking the sexual equality guarantees in Section 28 of the charter, which they maintain are not covered by the notwithstanding clause.

The Quebec government has said it is prepared to defend its secularism law before all courts. Premier François Legault has previously described the law as moderate and said it is supported by most of the province’s citizens.

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