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Montreal school board to ask Supreme Court to hear appeal of Quebec secularism law

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The debate over the constitutionality of Quebec's secularism law is poised to go to the Supreme Court of Canada.

On Wednesday evening, the English Montreal School Board (EMSB) voted in favour of asking Canada's top court to rule on Bill 21 after a Feb. 29 Quebec Court of Appeal ruling that upheld the law.

In a unanimous decision, the province's highest court upheld the law that prohibits public sector workers in positions of authority — including teachers, judges and police officers — from wearing religious symbols on the job.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims was one of many groups that had intervenor status in the previous legal challenge of the law.

The ruling was a blow to the EMSB, Quebec's largest English-language public school board, which had previously been exempted from the law after a ruling by the Superior Court of Quebec.

Commissioner Pietro Mercuri said at Wednesday's meeting that the board's vote was an important historical lesson about standing up for fundamental rights.

"History has shown that when governments denied people jobs in positions based on how they look, how they dress due to their faith, it's only a precursor for even worse things to come," he said. "Bill 21 excludes people from obtaining certain jobs in positions based on what they wear according to their faith. Not continuing a fight against Bill 21, Mr. Chairman, in my opinion, is a profound disrespect against previous generations who have fought to protect people who have been marginalized and made to feel unwanted by their government."

During a special board meeting, 12 board members voted in favour of a motion to bring the challenge to the Supreme Court.

One member voted against, one abstained and another was not present.

To help pass the law, Premier François Legault's Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government relied on preemptively using the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms' notwithstanding clause, which shields legislation from most court challenges over violations of fundamental rights.

The Quebec Superior Court had exempted English school boards from certain provisions of the law on the basis that minority language education rights — which aren't covered by the Charter's notwithstanding clause — weren't respected.

However, the three-judge appeal panel rejected that analysis in its February ruling.  

Debate over legal costs

According to commissioner Joseph Lalla, the board has already spent $1.3 million to date in legal costs in challenging the law.

Some commissioners raised concerns about the funds being better spent elsewhere in its schools and where the new funds for the upcoming appeal will come from.

He was critical of the board for not reaching out to other school boards to help finance an appeal to Canada's highest court.

"Why would they contribute any money at this point because if we are successful at the Supreme Court they will get all the benefits without costing a single penny for them," Lalla said.

He nevertheless supported the motion, saying "there are times when the EMSB must fight for its value and its rights, which are being encroached upon by the CAQ government." 

EMSB Chair Joe Ortona said in February the money spent so far represented a small fraction of the board's $2 billion budget over the last five years. 

Julien Feldman also voted yes on the motion on Wednesday.

"I appreciate the debate about the money," he said, "but, frankly, I believe the debate should be about the principles of the matter and the merits of the case."

-- with files from The Canadian Press. 

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