OTTAWA (CCN)—A courtroom battle over Quebec’s so-called secularism law is expected to wind up before the Supreme Court of Canada as the legality of Bill 21 is heard in Quebec Superior Court.

Quebec has tried to shield the law, which bans the wearing of religious symbols by public sector workers hired since the law came into effect last year, by invoking the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But lawyers challenging Bill 21 say sexual equality guarantees in Section 28 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms are not subject to the notwithstanding clause. They say the secularism law disproportionately targets women by not allowing female teachers who wear a head covering to teach in public schools. 

“We will demonstrate that the law is unconstitutional and invalid,” said the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), which along with the National Council of Canadian Muslims and the English Language School Board of Montreal is challenging Bill 21 before the courts.

“Our unwavering resolve to keep fighting for marginalized people in Canada, and our commitment to justice and equality, are why we urge everyone to stand together against the religious symbols ban,” said the CCLA’s director of equity Noa Mendelsohn Aviv.

The primary case groups four different lawsuits trying to upend Bill 21, which has been condemned as an affront to religious freedom by religious organizations across Canada, including the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Opponents have previously argued that Bill 21 unfairly targets females, and although a Quebec appeal court conceded the law does infringe on the rights of some Canadians, it ruled against an effort to suspend the law until the primary case was argued. The use of the notwithstanding clause by the Quebec government appeared to be a critical factor in the court’s decision.
 The Quebec government says Bill 21 protects the secular nature of Quebec, that the Quebec government has the absolute right to make laws as it deems fit, and that the preemptive use of the notwithstanding clause shields the law from any court interference. The government has repeatedly pointed out that public opinion polls in Quebec show Bill 21 is supported by a large majority of Quebecers.

Outside of Quebec a number of provincial governments have passed motions condemning Bill 21 but for the most part Canada’s federal political parties have been silent on the issue, with both the NDP and Conservative leader Erin O’Toole explicitly saying Bill 21 is a provincial matter to be decided in Quebec.

Human rights and religious groups have called on the federal government to get involved in the legal challenges to Bill 21, but its position has been to stay out of the Quebec court cases while holding out the possibility of getting involved should the matter end up before the Supreme Court.

The CCLA and NCCM have said previously that they know the court fight against Bill 21 could go on for years, and that they were prepared to fight the law for however long it takes.

“We know this has the potential to go all the way to the Supreme Court, and we could be looking at a long battle of five-to-seven years,” a statement on the CCLA website said, adding “and we will fight this to the very end.”

The CCLA says it expects the Quebec court case to continue for several weeks.