Quebec Muslim groups are taking the provincial government to court over its recently enacted prayer room ban in public schools, arguing that the order is discriminatory and violates the Charter rights to freedom of religion and association.
Five Muslim organizations filed their case this week in Quebec Superior Court, seeking a judicial review of the ban and to have it declared unconstitutional. The groups are also seeking a judgment on how secularism and the notion of religious neutrality are interpreted by the government.
“The plaintiffs request that a declaratory judgment concerning the interpretation to be given to the principles of laicity and religious neutrality of the state be rendered so that these principles cannot be used to order prohibitions of prayers or other religious practices in public places,” the filing reads.
Education Minister Bernard Drainville ordered the ban April 19 after reports of at least two Montreal-area schools permitting students to gather on school property for prayer. The court filing notes that all of the cases reported in the media in March and April involved Muslim youth.
Drainville has said the concept of prayer rooms runs counter to Quebec’s policy of official secularism. His directive states that school space cannot be used ‘in fact and in appearance, for the purposes of religious practices such as open prayers or other similar practices.’
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The rule applies to elementary and high schools as well as vocational schools and adult education centers that fall under the public system. It does not extend to private schools or Indigenous school boards.
Drainville has said that he can’t ban prayer altogether and that students who want to pray should do so discreetly and silently.
The Muslim groups noted that their faith requires members to pray five times a day, including during school hours.
“Since it is a complete ban on all forms of prayer and since prayer is an essential component of Muslim religious practice, this ban discriminates against one group of individuals to the detriment of other groups,” the filing reads.
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The lawsuit argues that Quebec’s official secularism law — Bill 21 — applies to the state, not to the citizens it serves. Other than affirming the “laicity of the state,” the law prohibits many public servants, including teachers, from wearing religious symbols on the job.
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“State secularism aims to ensure that the state is not religious,” the Muslim groups say in their court filing. “The resulting obligation of state religious neutrality should not be interpreted in such a way as to favor one religion rather than another or to target, directly or indirectly, one religion rather than another.”
The plaintiffs said the decision to go before the courts was a last resort and came after extensive consultation, including that the Education Department was warned about their lawsuit on Monday.
One of the organizations, The Canadian Muslim Forum, said in a statement earlier this week that the Muslim community isn’t seeking preferential treatment but opposes being “continuously targeted under different pretexts and excuses.”
The Education Department declined to comment on the lawsuit.
When asked about the lawsuit, Premier François Legault told reporters Thursday in Quebec’s Beauty region, “We clearly think that schools are not the right place for prayer.”
Barring a settlement, the case is expected to be presented before a judge on June 2.
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