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The first hearing in the first court battle against Bill 21 began Tuesday in a Montreal courthouse.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and Ichrak Nourel Hak – a Université de Montreal education student who wears a hijab – are the plaintiffs in the case.

The groups are seeking a stay of the law as they hope to strike down multiple parts of Bill 21 including the sections prohibiting public employees from wearing religious symbols, and the section that requires all citizens to have their faces uncovered when receiving government services.

Mustafa Farooq of the National Council of Canadian Muslims said the law is inherently discriminatory.

"It is fundamentally – we argue, and we are making spirited arguments about it – unconstitutional and creates second-class citizenship. It divides us and frankly, it has no place in Quebec or in any part of Canada," said Farooq.

Although the provincial government invoked the notwithstanding clause to pass the law, the plaintiffs' lawyers said that clause is not absolute and there are many other reasons to strike down Bill 21.

In front of a packed courtroom, lawyer Catherine McKenzie's main argument was that the law covers areas that are not under provincial jurisdiction because Bill 21 concerns "the relationship between the state and religion."

McKenzie, who successfully fought the previous government's similar Bill 62, cited legal decisions regarding abortion and Sunday shopping as examples.

She said Bill 21 causes "irreparable harm" by "barring a segment of the population from institutions" and will result in people losing their jobs, being denied promotions, or never being able to enter their preferred career at all.

"This is not a minor act. They are not applying the existing definition of secularism. They are changing it," said McKenzie.

They also argue the law technically falls under the federal government's jurisdiction, not Quebec's, because it sets out to regulate the relationship between the state and religion.

"I think it's always been the case that the Constitution of Canada and the fundamental rights of minority groups also need to be protected in addition to having the will of the majority," said Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, equalities program director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. 

McKenzie's co-council, Olga Redko, said Bill 21 is hopelessly vague and will lead to great disparities in its application.

"This act is so vague and imprecise that its operation will be arbitrary," said Redko.

She said the law never makes it clear what is the difference between a religious symbol and a cultural symbol, pointing out that wedding bands, bracelets, and headscarves can all qualify as both.

"How is someone enforcing this law supposed to know if someone is wearing a headscarf for religious purpose, for health reasons such as chemotherapy, or because they feel like it?" said Redko.

Mckenzie said this lack of a definition was a deliberate act by the provincial government and created many unknowns, including raising questions about indigenous spirituality, cultural outfits, and more.

The judge did point out that no law answers every question otherwise there would never be new laws.

Amrit Kaur of the World Sikh Organization, said the law has sidelined her dream of becoming a teacher in Quebec.

"I just graduated, I want to work ASAP. I'm 28 years old. I spent a lot of time and energy in my degree and I want to work," she said.

Government lawyers responded in the afternoon session, arguing the province is well within its rights to institute the religious symbols laws.

The judge said he will seek to have a decision on whether or not to suspend the law within ten days, by July 19.

 

- With files from CTV Montreal's Angela MacKenzie