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Quebec justice minister ready to defend secularism law at the Supreme Court, tells Ottawa to 'mind its own business'

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Quebec's justice minister says he intends to defend the province's secularism law to the very end, after the English Montreal School Board said it would seek permission to appeal a decision upholding the law to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Simon Jolin-Barrette made the comments on Thursday while sending a message to the federal government to "mind its own business" about Bill 21, which prohibits public sector workers, like judges and teachers, from wearing religious symbols on the job.

"We will always defend the secularism of the state because in Quebec the state and religions are distinct," Jolin-Barrette said in Quebec City. "And we are going to be very clear: we will never compromise on the subject."

Quebec's Court of Appeal ruled in February that Bill 21 is constitutional, overturning a lower court ruling that exempted English school boards from applying some of the law's key elements. The school board had challenged the 2019 law on the basis that it violates minority language rights and gender equality provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The board was initially successful in gaining an exemption from certain provisions of the law in an April 2021 ruling, including the prohibition on hiring teachers who wear religious symbols. But Quebec's highest court reversed that decision.

The federal government has indicated that it would participate in a challenge to the law in Supreme Court.

"I invite the federal government to mind its own business," Jolin-Barrette said. "This is a Quebec issue, this is a matter that was resolved in the national assembly of Quebec."

The federal government, he said, should have more respect for Quebecers and the provincial legislature, whether on secularism or on immigration -- a subject over which Quebec and Ottawa have butted heads in recent months.

The English Montreal School Board said its council of commissioners voted on Wednesday to mandate a law firm to file an application for leave to appeal to Canada's highest court.

"We maintain our original position that Bill 21 conflicts with our values and our mission and with those of all Quebecers as expressed in the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms," said Joe Ortona, chairman of the board. "Its very adoption was contrary to our societal goal of promoting our peaceful coexistence in a pluralistic Quebec."

-- This report by The Canadian Press was first published on April 11, 2024.

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