The mayor of Montreal calls it “very concerning.” Religious groups say it’s discriminatory. And civil liberties groups have vowed to fight.

But what legal options do these groups have in the face of the Coalition Avenir Québec government’s secularism bill, and what will the government do once it’s passed, if people don’t comply with it?

Bill 21, tabled Thursday, would ban public workers in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols.

The ban would apply to, among others, Quebec Crown prosecutors, judges and any public employee who carries a firearm, as well as teachers and principals.

Premier Francois Legault says he will work to “unite as many Quebecers as possible” behind the proposed law, and he wants the issue settled by summer

But the draft legislation also invokes the notwithstanding clause to pre-emptively protect it from constitutional challenges.

Not immune?

Opponents of the bill, however, are examining it closely — and say it’s not immune to a court challenge.

“We are studying the law, and we are studying what possible recourses we might bring,” said Catherine McKenzie, a Montreal lawyer who successfully challenged a section of Bill 62, the secularism law adopted by the previous Liberal government in 2017.

The most contentious portion of 2017 law dictated the conditions under which Quebecers are required to leave their faces uncovered in order to receive public services.

A Quebec judge stayed that section last year, saying it appeared to be a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and its Quebec counterpart, which “provide for freedom of conscience and religion.” That challenge is still before the courts, and another hearing is set for May.

The Legault government’s secularism bill attempts to rewrite the guidelines for when someone must uncover their face in order to receive government services — putting the challenge to Bill 62 in a kind of legal limbo, for now.

Public workers in positions of authority would not be allowed to wear religious symbols, according to Bill 21. (Michael Conroy/Associated Press)

Getting creative

Three successive governments have tried and failed to pass a law addressing religious neutrality. That’s the CAQ’s rationale for invoking the notwithstanding clause — it doesn’t want this fourth attempt stuck in the courts for years.

The bill mentions, in particular, sections two and seven to 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which pertain to legal rights. Section two protects the “fundamental freedoms” of individuals, including freedom of conscience and religion.

The bill also amends the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, “to specify that persons must maintain proper regard for state laicity in exercising their fundamental freedoms and rights.”

McKenzie, though, said there are sections of the charter that the government cannot override with the notwithstanding clause that may, potentially, be an avenue for a legal challenge.

She said she’s exploring “creative” ways to challenge the bill, including whether the bill flies in the face of international treaties.

France-Isabelle Langlois, Amnesty International’s director for French-speaking Canada, said her organization is also looking at the law, “to see if there’s any possibilities here in Quebec, Canada and internationally.”

“We’re hoping on the international level, we can go forward,” she said.

Amnesty International was one of seven organizations, including the country’s most prominent women’s federation, that came out against the bill on Friday.

“We are in support of Muslim women in Quebec accessing their full freedom or conscience and religion. We feel that the bill will contravene that,” said Idil Issa, vice-president of the Fondation Parole de femmes, which represents women from visible minorities.

Government warns of ‘consequences’

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, who argues the bill would harm the city’s diverse population, said Friday the city will take part in hearings at the National Assembly, but that it’s too soon to say what it will do if the legislation becomes law.

“As the mayor of Montreal, it is my responsibility to reassure my population that yes, we will be fighting for them,” she said.

Municipalities, including the City of Westmount, as well as the English Montreal School Board and the Lester B. Pearson School Board, have also signalled they will not comply with the law if passed in its current form.

It’s unclear what will happen if they don’t comply.

Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette said Friday public bodies and municipalities will be required to go along with the law, or there will be “consequences.”

“One thing’s for sure, once the bill is adopted by the National Assembly, it will become law, and the school board will have to apply the law. That’s the way it works in our society,” he said.

Watch Simon Jolin-Barrette defend the bill in conversation with CBC Montreal News at 6 anchor Debra Arbec.

In the day since the Quebec government tabled Bill 21, entitled “An Act respecting the laicity of the State,” many questions have been asked by citizens, politicians and institutions. 13:22
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