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In this season of darkness, the festivals of light bringing warmth and cheer may be more welcome than ever. These holiday lights serve as an important reminder of our cherished values: family, community, giving, freedom of religion, and the beauty of diversity. After all, these lights include not only those adorning Christmas trees, but also Diwali oil lamps, fireworks, and Hannukah candles. And of course, even among people who celebrate the same holiday, the lights may carry different meanings. For some they provide sparkle and merriment, for some they are rooted in tradition and provide connections to families and communities, while for others they represent an important religious event and are celebrated out of deep reverence or piety.

The same is true for other religious symbols and observances. Some people celebrate Easter for religious reasons or for fun. Some attend temple for spiritual or community purposes. And some eat kosher, vegetarian or halal food for their faith, or for tradition and identity. But only one type has been banned in Canada – the wearing of religious symbols in many parts of the Quebec public sector. And it is Muslim women who have borne the brunt of this ban.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association together with the National Council of Canadian Muslims, a teacher named Ichrak Nourel Hak, and several other parties recently concluded a 6 ½ week trial against the Laicity Act (known as Bill 21), whose ban on religious symbols came into effect in June 2019. In the trial, the court heard from a diverse group of witnesses, many of whom explained why they wore their symbols. For some, it was a part of their identity and culture; for some, it made them feel closer to God; and for some it represented their most cherished values. Amrit Kaur, a Sikh woman, described each of the symbols she wears and what they stood for, including equality of the genders. Ichrak Nourel Hak testified how, as a friendly and open person, she hopes her wearing of the hijab (Muslim headscarf) helps dispel myths and stereotypes.

The court also heard from many witnesses as to the harms they had endured since the enactment of Bill 21: women teacher candidates, most of them Muslim, lost their jobs and vocations; an aspiring Crown prosecutor had her plans derailed; individuals expressed concerns about their financial security, and their fears for the future of their children; and many Muslim women in hijab described increasing incidents of verbal and physical harassment against them in public spaces. One woman, overcome with emotion, simply wept on the stand as she described how it felt to be excluded from a society she had once seen as a model of acceptance.

Following the fact and expert witnesses, the court heard the legal arguments. Representatives for affected individuals and communities, and for public interest parties like CCLA, explained to the court how even if the notwithstanding clause has been invoked to shield Bill 21 from certain aspects of the Charter, Bill 21 still violates other parts of our constitution and must be struck down.

The court will now take some time to consider and write its decision.

For the rest of us, we can consider this: Whatever one’s traditions, beliefs and practices, whether one sees the twinkling lights as symbolic of the Star of Bethlehem, the lamps as a symbol of enlightenment, or are just happy to have a holiday, we have lived in this country for many years with neighbours of different faiths and traditions. Banning some religious symbols has brought darkness to many people in Canada this year. On a cold pandemic night, surely we can continue to stand up for every person’s freedoms, accept our differences, and enjoy each other’s festive lights.

About the Canadian Civil Liberties Association

The CCLA is an independent, non-profit organization with supporters from across the country. Founded in 1964, the CCLA is a national human rights organization committed to defending the rights, dignity, safety, and freedoms of all people in Canada.

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