English-language school boards argued before the Quebec Court of Appeal on Wednesday that they should be exempted from Quebec’s secularism law — known as Bill 21 — because religious diversity is part of the cultural heritage of schools. English schools in Quebec.
“There are countless examples of how religious diversity is celebrated in English schools. It’s part of the schools’ DNA,” Perri Ravon, a lawyer for the English-Montreal School Board (EMSB), told the court.
“The province must respect fundamental rights and freedoms when legislating education,” Ravon said.
Passed under the Coalition Avenir Québec government in 2019, Bill 21 prohibits public school teachers, police officers, government lawyers, a host of other public servants and even some politicians from wearing religious symbols at work.
The Quebec government and several civil liberties groups are making arguments this week about a Superior Court decision last year that upheld most — but not all — of the law’s provisions.
Most notably, Superior Court Judge Marc-André Blanchard ruled that Bill 21 should not be applied to English school boards because of their minority language rights guaranteed in the Constitution allowing them “management and control”. of English-language education in the province.
The province is appealing this aspect of the decision, while civil liberties groups want to see the entire law struck down.
Despite Blanchard’s decision, Bill 21 continued to be enforced in English-language boards pending the results of this appeal. The EMSB failed in a legal attempt last year to be exempted from the application of the law pending the results of the appeal.
Province argues law has ‘no effect’ on minority language rights
On Tuesday, the lawyer for the Attorney General of Quebec argued that minority language protections given to English school boards applied strictly to language instruction issues, not what he called “cultural concerns.” about religious symbols.
“Bill 21 has no effect on the erosion of linguistic minority rights,” Manuel Klein told the court.
He argued that the “political opinions and expressions of values” of English school boards do not enjoy constitutional protections that should allow them to be exempt from Bill 21.
“There is nothing other than the language that should be taken into consideration,” Klein said.
EMSB calls Bill 21 an “affront to its identity”
The EMSB lawyer fired back on Wednesday, citing several court decisions that have recognized the right of minority language school boards to promote and preserve linguistic culture, cultural heritage, customs, habits and experiences.
Ravon argued that religious diversity was deeply rooted in Quebec’s English-speaking minority culture and therefore entitled to constitutional protection.
“Life in English school boards is steeped in a celebration of diversity in all its forms. English school boards experience Bill 21 as an affront to their identity,” Ravon said.
“Bill 21 transmits to students cultural values that are antithetical to those of English school boards,” she said. “It makes students realize that English schools are places where religious minorities are not welcome.”
Ravon noted that previous court decisions have recognized that the right of minority language school boards to manage and control language and culture education extends to the hiring of teachers and staff.
She said law enforcement has meant the EMSB has been reluctantly forced to turn away otherwise qualified potential teachers who say they will refuse to remove their religious symbols while on the job.
Klein countered that it is the rights of minority language parents that are protected in this provision of the Constitution, not the rights of teachers who work for minority language boards.
Hearings in the Court of Appeal are due to end tomorrow, with an extra day set aside next week in case the panel of judges has further questions for the lawyers.
It will likely be several months before the court issues its decision. During this period, Bill 21 will continue to be applied in English school boards.
Even if the court ultimately decides that English advice should be exempt from the law, it could take several years before that actually happens.
All parties have indicated that this matter will ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court of Canada, a process that could take years.