Constitutional challenge launched against Quebec’s face-covering law

Constitutional challenge launched against Quebec’s face-covering law
CCLA acting general counsel, Cara Zwibel, says the new law sends a message about all Muslim people and has a disproportionate impact on Muslim women.

A court challenge has been launched against Quebec’s controversial Bill 62, which came into force Oct. 18.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the National Council of Canadian Muslims and Marie-Michelle Lacoste, a citizen directly and personally impacted by the bill, filed the application for judicial review and interim stay in Quebec yesterday against the so-called face-covering law.

“It’s a very clear and obvious violation of rights that are protected by both the Quebec and the Canadian charters,” says Cara Zwibel, CCLA acting general counsel. “It appears to have no compelling objective or purpose other than a somewhat vague notion of a state neutrality, which we don’t see as being furthered in any way by a law that limits how people go about their daily business.”

Officially titled 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 bill “imposes a duty of religious neutrality, in particular on personnel members of public bodies in the exercise of the functions of office” and also recognizes “the importance of having one’s face uncovered when public services are provided and received so as to ensure quality communication between persons and allow their identity to be verified, and for security purposes.”

The bill impacts only a small number of people, says Zwibel, since the practice of wearing a niqab or burqa is not a widespread practice in Quebec or Canada more generally.

“It’s a small minority of women who choose to wear the veil, but certainly I think it sends a message about all Muslim people and has a disproportionate impact on and targets them.”

The constitutional challenge, filed by lawyers from IMK LLP in Montreal, argues the act “gravely infringes the religious and equality rights of certain Muslim women in Quebec” and “imposes a significant burden on the exercise of religious freedom . . . in a discriminatory manner.”

Zwibel says they have a strong case and she thinks “the decision to try and get a stay of the legislation’s application is premised on the reality that this law has an immediate and direct impact on individuals and how they go about doing everyday things like getting on the bus, renewing their driver’s licence, going to the library or even going to the hospital.”

She also notes that the legislation is worded in such a way as to appear to put enforcement of the ban on to public employees a citizen might meet day to day.

“It’s a somewhat rare circumstance where there’s so many people responsible for enforcing a law like this — I think the lack of clarity around exactly what the law means and is meant to do is a problem,” she says.

Quebec Justice Minister Stephanie Vallée told the Montreal Gazette that the law does respect the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as Quebec’s charter.

“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,” Vallée told the paper, adding the government will continue to put the law into action despite the constitutional challenge.

Zwibel says the “attempt to clarify exactly what the law does or doesn’t do” has only caused more confusion.

“The law really should speak for itself,” she says.

Though she notes it won’t necessarily be heard at this time, Zwibel says a date has been set in Quebec Superior Court on Nov. 15 for the more urgent stay motion.

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