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Here's how people are reacting after Bill 21 was upheld by the Quebec Court of Appeal

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Quebec's highest court ruled Thursday that the province's secularism law, commonly known as Bill 21, is constitutional, delivering a major victory to the François Legault government.

A panel of three judges ruled in a 290-page decision that the law, adopted in 2019, does not violate the Charter. It also overturned an earlier ruling that exempted English school boards from the law. The law bans public sector workers in positions of authority, including teachers, judges, and police officers, from wearing religious symbols on the job.

Several groups intervened in the case, including the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the Canadian Human Rights Commission, and Mouvement Laïque Québécois.

Here's how some groups reacted to Thursday's ruling.

English Montreal School Board mulling appeal

Quebec's largest English public school board, the English Montreal School Board (EMSB), was one of the major players in the fight against the law.

On Thursday, the chair of the EMSB, Joe Ortona, said he was "disappointed" in the decision and that he is considering what the next steps will be.

"It's disappointing. The Supreme Court has, for decades, spoken unanimously about the importance of school boards' power of management and control over issues of language and culture and we feel that religion and religious liberty is a matter of culture for which we have the right to manage and control within our schools," he told reporters at the Quebec Court of Appeal shortly after the ruling came out.

English Montreal School Board Chair Joe Ortona comments on the Quebec Court of Appeal ruling in favour of Bill 21, Quebec's religious symbols law, in Montreal, Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Ortona said his "heart goes out" to the teachers in Quebec who are affected by the law. "I've said this over and over again, no students and no parents have ever complained about a teacher in the class wearing a religious symbol," he said.

An appeal of Thursday's judgment is "always on the table," he said, but before the board takes that step, he has a lot to consider, including whether or not there are grounds to appeal and what the chances of success will be. He also defended the EMSB's legal costs in the fight against Bill 21, saying the board has spent $1.3 million over the last five years, representing a small fraction of the $2 billion budget in that timeframe.

"I understand it's taxpayer money but nobody seems to ask the Government of Quebec these questions. We won unanimously on Bill 40, we got a total win in our favour. The government just decided to launch an appeal pretty much just because they can. Nobody asks them about money. They launched this appeal, nobody asked them about money. If we win on [Bil 96], they're going to appeal. Nobody's asking them about money. All sides, it costs money to appeal," he said.

'Charter does not apply to all Canadians equally'

Fatemeh Anvari made headlines when she was removed from her teaching job at an elementary school in Chelsea, Que. in 2021 for wearing a hijab, the traditional headscarf worn by Muslim women.

Reached by CTV News on Thursday, she said was "very disappointed" by the decision.

"A lot of people are trying and they've worked hard and included their voices [about] how they feel about this and that it's basically taking away the freedom of religion in many aspects," she said, "and to see it not go anywhere yet is quite disappointing."

Fatemeh Anvari told CTV News the appeal court ruling was 'quite disappointing.' Anvari was removed from her teaching job in western Quebec for wearing a hijab. (CTV News)

There was an outpouring of support for the former teacher after she was forced to leave her position at Chelsea Elementary School, with students across the river in Ottawa placing messages of support on a fence outside Ridgemont High School, where Anvari was a former student.

The legal fight should continue, she said, to uphold "the kind of Canada we want."

"I think we really need to reflect every one of us as to how we can play a role in what happens in how Canadians are being subjected to the Charter and whether we're all being subjected equally," she said. "As of now, the Charter does not apply to all Canadians equally. And so I really hope that we can see that day, sooner rather than later, where we can all enjoy our freedoms as Canadians."

'A great victory for Quebec'

On the other side of the spectrum, the pro-Bill 21 group Mouvement Laïque Québécois hailed the ruling a major win. The group, which advocates for secularism in Quebec society, was one of the groups that had intervenor status in the case before the court.

"It's a great victory for Quebec. It's a great victory for all provinces and it's especially a victory for Quebec's liberty, Quebec's autonomy because of a part of the ruling on the notwithstanding clause," said the group's lawyer, Guillaume Rousseau.

Pro-Bill 21 lawyers Luc Alaric, left, holds up a copy of the ruling as lawyer Guillaume Rousseau, right, looks on while commenting on the Quebec Court of Appeal ruling in support of Bill 21, Quebec's religious symbols law, in Montreal, Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

"Basically, what the Court of Appeal is saying is that Quebc can use the notwithstanding clause as it wishes. It can use it preventively and it can use it on targeting many sections of both charters. There's no problem using the notwithstanding clause in Bill 21."

Muslim group vows to fight 'discriminatory' law

The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) also joined the EMSB in the legal challenge.

In a statement on social media, the group said it was also "disappointed" by the court's ruling and vowed to keep fighting what it called a "discriminatory" law.

"We will keep fighting - including in the courts. This is not the end," the post read.

"We do not accept a Quebec and a Canada where our civil liberties and religious rights are nothing more than permissions that can be removed at the whims of politicians. Quebecers will continue this fight - every day."

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