A coalition of Muslim and human rights groups have launched a court challenge of the Quebec legislation that bans face-coverings from public services, arguing it goes against both the Quebec and Canadian Charters of Rights and Freedoms.
Filed on behalf of the National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the application for judicial review of Bill 62 also names as a plaintiff Marie-Michelle Lacoste, a Quebec woman who converted to Islam in 2003 and now goes by the name Warda Naili.
In the short term, the 25-page document filed in Superior Court calls for an interim stay of the legislation. Lawyer Catherine McKenzie says she hopes that the court will hear arguments to suspend the application of the law as early as next Wednesday.
It is urgent, she said, given the impact the legislation is already having on an unknown number of women.
Section 10 of Bill 62 bars anyone from giving or receiving a public service with their faces covered.
Called “An Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality and, in particular, to provide a framework for requests for accommodations on religious grounds in certain bodies,” the law applies to the provincial and municipal governments, and also extends to universities and the public transit system.
Two women who wear niqabs outside the home, and whenever a man other than their husband is present, provided affidavits to the court about their experiences before and after the legislation came into force, Oct. 18.
Both insist that wearing a face-veil was their own choice, and is a means of feeling more connected to God. Both are willing to remove their veils briefly when necessary for identification purposes. And both women also say they feel increasingly concerned for their own safety following Bill 62.
Fatima Ahmad, who was born and raised in Montreal, is now a second-year student at McGill University, studying to become a primary school teacher. She wore a hijab at 13, but received a niqab for Ramadan a little over a year ago and has worn the full face veil ever since.
McGill has said it will not apply the law, so Ahmad continues to attend classes. But she no longer uses public transit, relying instead on her father to drive her, and is now concerned about her ability to visit the library or go to the doctor. She is also concerned that she’ll never be able to teach in Quebec, if the law stands.
Ahmad’s affidavit points to an increase in the number of Islamophobic and aggressive remarks hurled at her on the street in the three weeks since the bill was passed.
As for Naili, née Lacoste, she says her husband and other members of the family have asked her not to wear the niqab, out of concerns for her safety.
But she believes the garment protects her dignity and modesty. “Having to unveil for longer than is absolutely necessary undermines her ability to act in accordance with her religious beliefs,” the application states.
The application for judicial review is also backed by the National Council of Canadian Muslims. While defending the rights of Quebec Muslims, the organization is said to be concerned with the “ricochet effect” Bill 62 may have in other provinces.
“The concern is related to what we’ve seen in polling, with people saying yes, they want legislation,” McKenzie explained. “When a group gets singled out, it sends a signal that these are Canadian values and approaches.”
In Quebec City
Premier Philippe Couillard indicated in Quebec City that the government is not surprised.
“Did anyone not expect a challenge?” Couillard said, arriving for a meeting of the Liberal caucus.
But Justice Minister Stephanie Vallée said the government firmly believes the law respect freedoms and will defend it in court.
“It is a law that respects the rights and freedoms guaranteed by our charters,” Vallée said. “It’s a law that is justified in a free and democratic society like Quebec.
“It’s a law adopted using the powers that are those of the government of Quebec. Yes, we will defend the bill.”
Vlalée insisted the government will continue to put the law into action despite the challenge.
As for other more detailed comments, Vallée said she will be limited in what she can say because the matter is before the courts.
Vallée was asked repeatedly whether the government would make use of the constitution’s notwithstanding clause to override rights in the event the law was struck down.
She ruled nothing out.
“We are not there for the moment,” Vallée said. “For now we will debate the law (in court) and its legitimacy.
“You know as I do that the notwithstanding clause is a tool at the disposal of the government. Now, today, we are not on the issue of deciding whether we will use it not.”
She added the debate is pointless because Bill 62 has not been struck down.
The two main opposition leaders also said they were not surprised. Both the Parti Québécois and Coalition Avenir Québec voted against the bill.
“It was entirely predictable,” said PQ leader Jean-François Lisée. “Now the real question is: will the Canadian government intervene in favour or not? Will the Canadian government use its weight to say they are against the will of the National Assembly to legislate on this?”
CAQ leader François Legault said even if the CAQ opposed the bill, he expects the government to defend it.
“I expect the government to fight against this group which is challenging Bill 62,” Legault said.
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