Muslims, Jews and other religious groups are speaking up against a controversial new law in Quebec that bans many public employees from wearing religious symbols ― including hijabs, kippas, turbans and crosses.
The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) filed a legal challenge against Quebec’s Bill 21 on Monday, seeking to halt the law’s application.
The groups claim the law, passed Sunday evening, is unconstitutional, will harm religious minorities, and amounts to “state-sanctioned second class citizenship.”
“This shameful law is a black mark on the progressive and inclusive province that we know Quebec to be,” NCCM’s executive director Mustafa Farooq said in a statement. “It will upend people’s lives and livelihoods, pushing many Muslims, Jews and Sikhs to the margins of society in an already-tense time when Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and other forms of racism are on the rise.”
Ichrak Nourel Hak is a plaintiff who is part of the NCCM and CCLA’s legal challenge against the secularism law. Nourel Hak, a University of Montreal student who is currently studying to be a teacher, fears the law will stop her from teaching in public school, since she wears a hijab.
In a statement on Monday, the student said that the law has stripped her of her dreams of becoming a teacher and sends a message that she isn’t a valued part of Quebec’s society.
“The decision to wear a hijab was mine and came from me. The decision to remove it should also come from me, not the government,” the student said.
The groups’ request is expected to be heard in Quebec’s Superior Court on Thursday.
Bill 21 was an initiative of the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), a right-leaning, anti-immigrant political party that came into power last year. The secularism law bars schoolteachers, police officers, judges, government lawyers and other public employees in positions of authority from wearing any religious clothing, headgear or jewelry on the job.
Public sector employees who currently wear religious symbols will be exempt from the law under a grandfather clause ― but only if they stay in the same position. That means a Muslim teacher who wears a hijab could not move to another school or be promoted to a higher position, such as school principal, unless she removes her scarf, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
Bill 21 also outlines rules requiring citizens to uncover their faces if they want to receive any kind of public service, “when doing so is necessary to allow their identity to be verified or for security reasons.”
Hours before the bill passed, the government added an amendment that gives it power to enforce the law and impose sanctions if some institutions refuse to comply. Some mayors and school boards in the province have pledged to ignore the law, The New York Times reports.
That last-minute addition further angered some critics of the law, who claimed it would lead to a “secularism police.”
François Legault, Quebec’s premier, has said that the legislation is needed to ensure his province’s secular nature. Legault has also pointed out that most Quebecois support the law, which passed 73 to 35.
The measure contained a clause meant to override some of the religious liberty protections offered by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canada’s bill of rights.
The new law has been criticized by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s administration. A spokesman for Pablo Rodriguez, Canada’s multiculturalism minister, told Reuters that his department will be monitoring the implementation of the law.
“Our position is clear: It’s not up to politicians to tell people what to wear or not to wear,” said Simon Ross, Rodriguez’s spokesperson. “Canada is already a secular state and that is reflected in our institutions. This new law undermines fundamental rights and individual freedoms because it forces some people to choose between their religion and their job.”
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) said the province’s Jewish community is “profoundly disappointed” by the bill’s adoption.
“This bill is reckless,” Brenda Gewurz, chair of CIJA’s Quebec chapter, said in a statement. “It undermines religious freedom and equal access to employment in the public and parapublic sectors.”
Quebec’s Catholic bishops have spoken out against the measure for months. On June 14, the bishops released a statement saying that they supported the separation of church and state and agreed that state employees who have a strict dress code should be prohibited from wearing religious symbols. However, the bishops said that the ban against teachers wearing religious items betrays a “misunderstanding” of religion’s role in society. The bishops said they feared Bill 21 “will nourish fear and intolerance, rather than contribute to social peace.”
“We believe that it’s better to fight prejudices and fear for the other in a rational way, by educating people about the diversity of religious, spiritual and cultural experiences and traditions, rather than by prohibitions,” the bishops said, according to a translation by Crux.
While Bill 21 didn’t mention a specific religion, some experts say the measure is targeted at Muslims. Islamphobia has been on the rise in Canada, with police pointing to a sharp increase in hate crimes against Muslims in recent years.
Quebec’s capital city was the site of a 2017 mosque shooting in which a gunman killed six worshippers.