The English Montreal School Board (EMSB) is once again fighting the Quebec government in court for the right to hire teachers who wear religious symbols.
Monday marked the latest chapter in a long legal battle over Bill 21, the Legault government’s secularism bill.
“Every day that this bill is in effect, essentially our students are losing out and they’re missing out, and that’s the irreparable harm,” said Joe Ortona, the chair of the English Montreal School Board.
Bill 21 is Quebec’s law banning public employees like teachers, judges and police officers from wearing religious symbols on the job.
In April, the EMSB celebrated a Quebec superior court judge’s ruling that found parts of the law could not apply to English schools because of their special constitutional rights.
“It’s a discriminatory piece of legislation, and it violates our section 23 rights to manage and control. It prevents us from hiring and promoting teachers who wear religious symbols,” Ortona explained.
As soon as that ruling came out in April, however, Quebec immediately announced plans to appeal.
On Monday, the board argued at the Court of Appeal that it should be able to hire staff who wear religious symbols while the government appeals.
“The appeal is expected to be heard in April of next year, and as for when we’re going to get a decision on that, it’s impossible to know,” said Ortona.
The province’s lawyers told judge Frédéric Bachand there is no evidence the bill has had a negative impact since it passed over two years ago.
The lawyers for the EMSB responded that six teachers have already been denied employment because of the religious symbols they wear. The EMSB cited a study that found having teachers from diverse backgrounds can help improve academic achievement among visible minority students.
Quebec’s lawyers tried to argue against the relevance of the research. The government legal team refused to comment on the case as they left the court.
“We value tolerance, diversity, acceptance, multiculturalism and exposing children to that we think is an asset,” said Ortona.
The judge will now take some time to study the arguments of all sides and should make his decision public in the coming days.