A new development in the fight to preserve outward displays of faith in Quebec has advocates of religious freedom continuing in their challenge to overturn the law.

Only a short time after it was initially passed, Bill 21 was challenged on its constitutionality and a recent ruling by Quebec's Superior Court has substantiated the worries of many.

On July 19, an injunction of the law sought by the Civil Liberties Association and the National Council of Muslims was struck down by the Superior Court despite acknowledgement that the law does indeed raise constitutional concerns.

What is the law?

Bill 21 exists to promote the neutrality of the State, done significantly by banning those who work as public workers from wearing religious symbols while they are working. Symbols such as cross necklaces, burkas, and other religious representations will not be permitted to be worn by those working on behalf of the Quebec government.

The law was designed to promote a separation between the State and religion.

In response to the Charter challenge, Quebec courts invoked Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, also known as the notwithstanding clause, a provision that allows the government to enact a law regardless of its infringement on the rights and freedoms of Canadians otherwise mentioned in the Charter.

While the immunity granted by this clause to the government is only temporary, Derek Ross, executive director and general counsel for the Christian Legal Fellowship, says that his organization is concerned by how far the law goes.

"People of faith, of any faith - Christianity, any other religion - cannot wear or express their religion through the wearing of religious clothes, in any way, while at work," Ross explained.

The bill presents a number of issues for those coming from a faith background. Calling it intrusive, Ross explained the true consequences of the law on those it affects.

"For some believers, wearing a religious symbol is not just a [fashion] choice. For them, it's a sincere conviction that they feel compelled to do in a manner of expressing their sincerely-held religious beliefs; it's not optional."

The choice left for those who do hold those beliefs is not one they look favourably upon: refrain from outwardly representing their beliefs, or face the consequences at their place of employment.

Practically, the law now places a significant barrier between many who hold sincere religious beliefs and an opportunity to participate in public work, including professions as government lawyers, teachers, and police officers. Fears of intimidation and pressure to be silent on their beliefs, says Ross, will cause significant stress on those who are provincial employees, and effectively prevent those who are believers from entering public service

"Even for those believers who do not wear religious symbols, the law is sending a pretty clear message here," Ross continues. "What they're saying is that ... religion is viewed as a bad thing when it is brought into the workplace. It needs to be kept suppressed. invisible."

Not an issue of neutrality

Ultimately, those of a religious background are being told to keep their beliefs to themselves, a message contrary to the foundational practice of many faiths, including Christianity.

"We're concerned ... that the civil service will be a place where people are either hiding their core beliefs and their core religious identity or one in which people of faith are entirely absent and we cannot see how that possibly could be a good thing in a free and democratic society," Ross said.

The issue in this legal situation is not neutrality by the government towards religious beliefs. "That, in principle, has some value," said Ross, explaining that the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) itself has established precedent for neutrality to exist between the State and religion. As the SCC established in the 2015 case of Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City), "Neutrality is required of institutions and the state, not individuals."

"But that does not mean that individuals have to hide their faith," Ross stated.

The ban on religious symbols only applies to workers while on the job, but the concern remains, says Ross, that the government wants citizens to see its workers as religiously neutral, something that could potentially cause a "ripple effect" into the private lives of civil servants as well.

Freedom of religion?

Ross says that he is encouraged that this law, despite its infringement on freedom of religion for members of Quebec's civil service, will not lead to greater limitations on the fundamental right.

"For now, our Charter is very clear that the freedom of religion, the freedom to express and manifest your religion is a fundamental freedom that is protected in the Charter," he says. "The Supreme Court has repeatedly said that freedom of religion must be jealously guarded."

Bill 21 does represent the increased number of challenges to the idea of religious freedom, however. Ongoing legal arguments of laws concerning euthanasia and abortion in Ontario, freedom of conscience for physicians, and the refusal of accreditation for Trinity Western's law school in British Columbia.

Similar to the case of Bill 21, Ross says it has been acknowledged by the courts these cases are limiting religious freedom.

"It's something that's seen really as a choice that people can turn on and off and not recognizing just how important religion is to one's identity and sense of worth and dignity."

The question, then, will become not whether the right to religion remains constitutionally protected, but to what degree the fundamental right will be expressable in day-to-day society.

Despite Canada-wide distaste and even outrage, the law remains in effect at this time but the case still has yet to be heard on its merits.

"The court did not speak ... substantively to the merits of the argument, so that case is yet to be heard," explained Ross, who says a number of legal arguments to challenge Bill 21 still remain. In the meantime, those currently employed as public workers in the province are not at risk of losing their jobs as the law is enforceable only on new hires, but their potential for promotion remains limited should they continue to represent their beliefs through the wearing of religious symbols.

"That obviously has very significant and limiting effects for those who are students looking to graduate, looking to become lawyers, teachers. This is obviously a very devastating development to [sic] them."