The Quebec government can’t “with a straight face” claim its new religious symbols law won’t have any harmful effects, a lawyer for two civil rights groups told a Superior Court justice Tuesday morning.
Catherine McKenzie made the comment as she asked the court to freeze the most controversial sections of the law. Tuesday’s hearing in Montreal is the first legal test of Bill 21 since it became law last month in the face of widespread opposition.
Also known as Bill 21, the legislation bars authority figures, including public school teachers, from wearing religious symbols at work.
A motion filed by the National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association asks the court to issue an injunction pending a more complete review of the law’s constitutionality.
Courts have often been reluctant to impose injunctions on recently passed legislation.
“We know what we’re asking you to do is hard,” McKenzie said to Justice Michel Yergeau as the lawyer concluded her arguments.
Just moments before, she had sought to dismantle the Coalition Avenir Québec’s assertion that Bill 21 causes no irreparable harm — among the criteria for granting a temporary injunction.
McKenzie highlighted a series of written testimonies her clients had submitted to the court, including several from student teachers who now feel unable to pursue a career in Quebec.
“That’s real people being affected by the law,” McKenzie said, her voice rising as she delivered her argument.
Then, pointing to the six government lawyers on the other side of the witness box, she asked “how can they say with a straight face” that the law was without negative consequences.
The hearing took place in a packed courtroom; a clerk brought in additional chairs to accommodate the overflow crowd, which included several women wearing the hijab.
McKenzie and fellow lawyer Olga Redko began the hearing by listing a number of ways the law could be considered unconstitutional, even though it invokes the notwithstanding clause.
They said it violates federal jurisdiction, claiming Ottawa alone has the power to impose a moral view on how religion should be practised.
Redko then argued the law’s definition of a religious symbol is “so vague, so imprecise” that it will be impossible to be applied equitably.
“That is what the rule of law prohibits,” she said.
Finally, the lawyers argued the law violates protections for minority rights that are embedded in the Constitution.
These three constitutional issues, they said, were enough to demonstrate Bill 21 raises enough concern to merit being the subject of an injunction.
Government lawyers will argue Tuesday afternoon that no injunction should be granted.