English Montreal School Board files legal challenge to Bill 21

The English Montreal School Board (EMSB) has filed its legal challenge to Quebec’s controversial law that bars teachers and principals from wearing religious symbols.

The legal challenge, filed Thursday by the law firm Power Law on behalf of the EMSB and parent commissioners Pietro Mercuri and Mubeenah Mughal, argues the law contravenes sections of the Constitution that protect minority language educational rights and the equality of men and women.

While the secularism law, also known as Bill 21, invokes the notwithstanding clause in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, that clause does not apply to Section 23, which protects the education rights of anglophones in Quebec and francophones in the rest of the country.

The EMSB also plans to use Section 23 in a court challenge of the Coalition Avenir Québec government’s school reform bill, should it become law.

In Thursday’s filing, the board argues that Bill 21 “rewrites how teachers, particularly female teachers, in Quebec’s English public education system can embody and express their religious identities.”

It says the law targets women and “historically disadvantaged religious minorities.”

It also argues the law has an uneven effect, particularly on Muslim women, as it only bans religious clothing and not religious facial hair.

The filing mentions that at least three qualified female candidates who had been interviewed prior to the tabling of Bill 21 are not working at the board because they wear hijabs.

It also says the law limits who the EMSB can promote, as teachers wearing religious symbols lose their grandfathered right to continue to do so if they accept a different job, such as becoming a vice-principal or principal.

When the EMSB announced its intention to launch a legal challenge to the law last month, Quebec Premier François Legault said he was confident the government would win, calling the challenge a “big show.”

The Quebec government has argued that the law applies evenly to all Quebecers, but the legal documents filed by the EMSB point to material on the CAQ website that called for a ban on certain religious clothing worn by Muslim women, as well as comments made by the CAQ’s minister for the status of women saying that the hijab is a “symbol of oppression.”

Bill 21 is already facing a legal challenge filed by the National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. Other legal challenges are also being planned.

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