OTTAWA—The federal Liberals say they will defend Quebecers’ Charter rights after the provincial government passed a controversial law banning public servants from wearing religious symbols.
But Justice Minister David Lametti wouldn’t say how, exactly, Ottawa intends to go about doing that.
Lametti, who represents the Montreal riding of LaSalle-Émard-Verdun, said he doesn’t believe “it’s up to a government to tell people what they should wear and what they shouldn’t wear.”
“We believe that Canada is already a lay state, a neutral state (when it comes to religion), and that’s reflected in our institutions. And we’re going to defend the Charter,” Lametti said.
But when asked if the federal government will intervene in a court challenge already launched against Bill 21, Québec’s so-called secularism bill, Lametti would only say that Ottawa plans to “look at the law as amended” and “see what happens on the ground.”
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Premier François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec government passed Bill 21 into law late Sunday after a marathon weekend sitting of the National Assembly.
The bill would ban public servants in positions of authority — teachers, judges, police officers, Crown lawyers, prison guards and more — from wearing religious symbols such as hijabs, kippahs or turbans while working.
Legault’s government has invoked the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause, preventing the courts from striking down Bill 21 for violating certain Charter rights. But less than 24 hours after being passed into law, the legislation was already facing its first court challenge.
The National Coalition of Canadian Muslims and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association said Monday they’ll challenge Bill 21, and expect to be before Québec Superior Court on Thursday.
“(The challenge) is about jurisdiction, it is about a constitutional challenge. Essentially we’re arguing that one, it’s unconstitutional, and two, it will cause irreparable harm to religious minorities,” said Leila Nasr, NCCM’s communications co-ordinator. “On those grounds, we’re asking the court to stay the application of the law.”
An official with the Prime Minister’s Office, who spoke to the Star on the condition they not be named, suggested they’d be following that lawsuit closely. But Lametti would not say if the federal government is considering intervening in the case.
Conservative MP Gérard Deltell said that while the party routinely says it stands up for religious and individual freedom, Conservatives also consider Bill 21 to be a provincial matter and that “the debate belongs to the Québec National Assembly.”
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“We also champion the respect of each and every province’s jurisdiction,” Deltell, a former Quebec MNP, told the Star.
“This is not specific to Quebec. Each and every province has the right to use the notwithstanding clause, has the right to do what they think is good for their people in their jurisdiction, and that’s exactly what it is …This is their will and this is their responsibility and this is also their right.”
Anthony Housefather, the Liberal chair of the House of Commons justice committee, said that he finds it “impossible” to explain to constituents who wear hijabs or kippahs why they’re eligible for public service jobs everywhere in Canada except in Quebec.
“To me, this is a law that is a fundamental misunderstanding of what secularism is and what the separation of church and state is. The separation of church and state is meant to be that the law favours no religion. It’s not to say that your personal religious beliefs are excluded from occupying an office in the state,” Housefather said.
“There are people in my riding that have less rights today then they did yesterday. And that’s deeply unfortunate.”
Alex Boutilier is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @alexboutilier