Quebec Superior Court Justice Marc-André Blanchard wrote that the law, known as Bill 21, does not violate “the Canadian constitutional architecture.” But he found that sections pertaining to the province’s Anglophone schools infringe upon constitutionally protected minority-language education rights.
He also struck down a ban on members of the National Assembly, the provincial legislature, from wearing face coverings while providing services to the public.
The English Montreal School Board said it was “elated” with the decision to strike down the sections of the law pertaining to its schools and urged the provincial government not to appeal the ruling.
“This legislation runs contrary to what we teach and to the culture of respect for individual rights and religious freedoms within English-language schools,” board chairman Joe Ortona said in a statement.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in 2019 that he did not think it was “a government’s responsibility or in a government’s interest to legislate on what people should be wearing.” Trudeau, who represents a district in Montreal, told reporters in Ottawa on Tuesday that he had not yet read the decision.
The 2019 law, the first of its kind in North America, has long been a lightning rod for controversy, sparking protests in the province and resolutions of opposition in other provinces. Previous Quebec governments had tried to pass similar legislation.
The law includes a grandfather clause that exempts from the ban employees who already are in their positions. But they would lose the exemption if they were promoted or moved to another institution. A teacher in a Francophone school who wears a hijab, for instance, could not continue to do so if she wanted to be a principal or to work at another school.
Quebec Premier François Legault has defended the law, arguing it has the support of most Quebecers, doesn’t target any one religion and is another step in secularizing a province in which the Catholic Church long wielded outsize influence. He has said public servants shouldn’t be wearing symbols that might promote their faith while serving the public.
But critics have assailed the law as an assault on religious minorities and freedom of expression. They argue it disproportionately affects Muslim teachers who wear hijabs. Several civil liberties groups filed legal challenges after it was passed.
To insulate the law from such challenges, Legault invoked the so-called notwithstanding clause of the Canadian constitution, which exempts the law from court challenges based on freedom of expression or religion rights. Minority language education rights are not exempted under the clause.
“The use by the legislator of exemption clauses appears excessive,” Blanchard wrote, “because it is too broad, although legally unassailable in the current state of the law.”
The law is expected to reach Canada’s supreme court.
The emotionally charged court hearings, which began in November, featured testimony from several women who said the law had derailed their lives and careers or quashed any hopes of advancement.
Blanchard referred to their testimony in the decision, and wrote that “there is no doubt” that the law “has serious and negative consequences for all those who wear religious symbols in public.”
“The exclusion from the simple possibility of practicing one’s envisaged career, for which one possesses all of the qualifications … sends the message that people who exercise their faith do not deserve to participate fully in Quebec society.”
Amrit Kaur was an intervener in the case. In 2019, Kaur, a Sikh woman from Quebec, told The Washington Post that she graduated from teachers college on the day Bill 21 passed. Rather than remove her turban to work in her home province, she moved across the country to take a job in British Columbia.
“I am very pleased that today’s decision allows teachers like myself to work in the Quebec English educational system,” Kaur said Tuesday in a statement. “However, this victory is bittersweet since teachers in French schools, police officers and lawyers still cannot work with their articles of faith. Bill 21 continues to pose an unprecedented challenge to minorities in Quebec.”
Simon Jolin-Barrette, Quebec’s justice minister, told reporters on Tuesday that the government plans to appeal the decision. “All the laws that are adopted here at the National Assembly have to apply to everyone in Quebec,” he said.