'I feel excluded from society,' says teacher as trial against Quebec secularism law begins

Constitutional challenges to Quebec’s secularism law began at the Montreal courthouse Monday with testimony from a teacher who wears a hijab.

Bill 21 forbids public employees in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols to work, and the trial pits civil liberties activists and defenders of freedom of religion against the government.

The secularism law applies to judges, police officers and schoolteachers, including Ichrak Nourel Hak who opened with testimony about how the legislation, adopted in June 2019, makes her feel excluded from society.

Nourel Hak said she started wearing the hijab at the age of 21 after reflecting on her religion. She told the court numerous times it was her choice to wear the Islamic headscarf and no one forced her to do it.

She said wearing the Islamic headscarf is also a way for her to fight stereotypes against Muslim women. "I want to show that there are women who are fulfilled, who want to give back to society," she told the court.

She testified that she received her teaching degree in September and was hired by a private school that isn't subject to Bill 21.

Those who defend the law say her case is evidence the law did not discriminate against her.

“It is perfectly possible to be a person of faith and to wear a religious symbol but also operate and conduct yourself in a neutral way in the public sector,” said Khadija Ahmed of the Muslim Law Students’ Association of McGill.

The English Montreal School Board is also fighting the controversial law.

“We believe in the separation of church and state, but it's supposed to be the state that is irreligious, not the individual,” said EMSB chair Joe Ortona.

The issue is complex, because the province invoked the notwithstanding clause when it adopted Bill 21: The clause temporarily allows a legislature to bypass the Charter of Rights. 

Lawyers will now have to convince the court why it cannot be invoked for Bill 21. 

Blanchard agreed that it's a decision that will likely be settled by the Supreme Court of Canada. 

- With files from Stephanie Marin of The Canadian Press

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