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Muslim, civil liberties groups challenge Quebec school prayer room ban in court

Quebec Education Minister Bernard Drainville tables a new legislation to reform the education system, Thursday, May 4, 2023 at the legislature in Quebec City. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

MONTREAL — A civil rights organization and a national Muslim advocacy group are the latest to launch a legal challenge of Quebec's decree banning prayer rooms in public schools, the second one in recent weeks.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association filed a motion Friday seeking a judicial review of the government decree on behalf of a plaintiff whose teenage son had sought a space to pray along with some other Muslim students at a Montreal-area high school last October.

According to the filing, the teen had become more devout over the summer and began praying five times a day in accordance with his Muslim faith, including once a day at school during the lunch hour. Sometimes it was with a small group of students, both indoors and outdoors.

The filing states that in October a staff member told the students prayer was not permitted. Following the incident, the students asked for a space where they could pray without being reproached, which was provided as of January for about 20 to 30 boys and girls, with supervision and without incident.

The space was rescinded in May after the school began applying Education Minister Bernard Drainville's ban.

Drainville has said the concept of prayer rooms runs counter to Quebec's policy of official secularism and his April 19 directive states that school space cannot be used for the purposes of religious practices such as open prayers.

The new rules came after reports of at least two Montreal-area schools permitting students to gather on school property for prayer. They apply to elementary and high schools as well as vocational schools and adult education centres that fall under the public system. They do 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 NCCM and the CCLA say the decree breaches students' rights, including the right to religious freedom and to equality as guaranteed by the Canadian and Quebec Charters of Rights and Freedom.

"Both the decree and the decision (by the school) infringe the freedom of religion of (the student) and other religious students across Quebec, a fundamental right protected both by the (Quebec) charter and by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms," the filing reads.

"The order also violates the right to equality protected by the Quebec charter, in particular by eliminating the duty to reasonable accommodation imposed on any public body by this charter."

The two organizations want to see the decree declared invalid, but in the meantime, they are also seeking a stay on the decree and its application by the school until the case is heard on its merits.

The action filed in Quebec Superior Court in Montreal on Friday comes just over a week after several Muslim organizations also announced they were taking the province to court over the prayer room ban, arguing it is discriminatory and violates the Charter rights to freedom of religion and association.

In that case, the groups, including the Canadian Muslim Forum and several local groups, are 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 is interpreted by the government.

As with the previous case,a spokeswoman for Drainville said there will be no comment on the most recent legal challenge.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 26, 2023.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

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