On March 10, students and legal professionals convened in New Chancellor Day Hall for a conference titled “Law & Faith: Bill 21 and Religious Discrimination.” The event, put on by the McGill Christian Law Students’ Association (CLSA), the McGill Jewish Law Students’ Association (JLSA), and the McGill Muslim Law Students’ Association (MLSA), was an opportunity for those in the legal field to discuss the implications of Bill 21 for people of faith.
Bill 21, one of the most controversial Bills currently active in Quebec, prohibits public servants in Quebec from wearing religious symbols. Doctors, police officers, judges, teachers, and prison guards are not allowed to wear visible markers of their religion while performing their duties. Pre-existing religious public structures, however, are not subject to the Bill.
Frank Schlesinger, who is Jewish, is a lawyer for Spiegel Sohmer and a former judge. He explained that structures such as the cross on Mount Royal, crucifixes around Montreal, and streets beginning with “Saint” are still allowed under the legislation.
“In a way, it tends to indicate that people other than Christians are not entitled to have visible symbols, [and the government] will keep the old ones,” Schlesinger said in an interview with The McGill Tribune.
Derek Ross, Nour Farhat, and Schlesinger sat on the first panel, which delved into Bill 21. Ross, the executive director of the Christian Legal Fellowship, was the first to speak on the hypocrisy of the Bill.
“[Bill 21] effectively excludes religious people from public service,” Ross said. “Simply saying that a law advances neutrality doesn’t actually mean that it [does].”
Farhat, a Muslim lawyer who wears a hijab, explained that Bill 21 impacts Muslim women first and foremost—women who are already at a heightened risk of being discriminated against and are more likely to be victims of assault. The dangerous implications of the Bill have manifested as an increase in hate-fuelled incidents across the province since its adoption in 2019.
“Legislations have an impact on how the population reacts to minority groups and marginalized groups.” Farhat said.
A survey by the Association for Canadian Studies found that 78 per cent of Muslim women in Quebec feel less accepted as members of society since Bill 21 was implemented. The same survey found that 53 per cent of Muslim women had heard prejudiced comments about Muslims from the people around them, and 47 per cent of Muslim women reported being discriminated against by an authority figure.
“It is clear that this law is aimed at a specific group—mainly Muslim women,” Schlesinger added. “If you do not meet the norm of homogenization, you cannot participate fully in Quebec society.”
The second panel centred around being religious in Quebec. Speakers Victor Muniz-Fratcelli, Ted Goloff, and Mariam Hammodi shared their experiences of being people of faith in the legal profession and how their religious identity has impacted them and their careers.
As the only veiled woman in her program at Université de Montréal, Hammodi explained that wearing the hijab has always come with unsolicited attention and questions.
“We sometimes feel this responsibility to answer questions in regards to religion,” Hammodi said. “I’m pretty sure [certain questions] would not have been asked to a Muslim colleague of mine that wasn’t wearing a veil [….] People [should] not be forced to make a choice between their [religion and profession].”
Andrea Sim of the CLSA, Fatima Beydoun of the MSLA, and Jonathan Zrihen of the JLSA helped organize the panel, and met with the Tribune before the event.
“This is our fourth interfaith collaborative event together,” Sim explained. “The time was right in terms of shining a light on [Bill 21] [to] come together and focus on highlighting not only the faith-based discrimination, [but also] the legal arguments to not only students but also admin […], such as [Brittany] Williams, [Assistant Dean (Students) and Dean’s Lead, Black and Indigenous Flourishing].”