In the October edition of Niv, I reflected on Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legacy and what she meant to me as a female Jewish law student. I discussed the important strides she made by working to fight discrimination, and how she overcame sexism and actively combatted it through her legal work. Her dissents forced American society to consider its core principles. And, I believe her zealous advocacy will influence jurists for decades to come.
With Justice Ginsburg’s passing, it reaffirmed the importance of placing individuals who have experienced discrimination in positions of public authority. Her experiences with anti-Semitism and sexism made her a strong advocate for minority groups.
In law school, I’ve had the privilege to be surrounded by individuals who inspire and move me with their passion for important legal and political issues. This November, I watched my colleagues embody Justice Ginsburg’s defiant spirit when they fought against Quebec’s Bill-21.
According to this bill, wearers of kippahs, hijabs, kirpans, and other religious symbols will be barred from working in the public sector. Bill-21 heavily impacts employees in the sectors of government, law and education. The immense danger of this legislation is not only its threat to religious freedom and equality but how it frames religious minorities as an obstacle to state neutrality. This bill will only rouse the Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and Xenophobia that exist in Quebec society.
The legislation’s stated purpose is to affirm the secularity of the State. The bill emphasizes that employees’ faces must be uncovered, a condition which targets Muslim women. Ironically, in the charter, religious symbols that are “emblematic of Quebec’s cultural heritage” (crosses), are not subject to this ban. The preamble to the legislation claims that its application will foster both equality between citizens and freedom of conscience and religion. Additionally, proponents of Bill-21 claim it will enhance impartiality. However, it is both insulting and false to imply that wearing a religious emblem hinders one’s ability to execute their functions impartially. When evaluated from the framework of substantive equality, this bill blatantly defies these principles. It is inconsistent with both equality and freedom of religion to in effect bar practicing individuals of religious minority groups from employment in the public sphere.
My colleagues organized a peaceful sit-in as Bill-21 was heard on the merits at the Montreal Courthouse. Almost 100 students, myself included, attended. We stood in solidarity with the plaintiff, Ichrak Nourel Hak, and spoke publicly against this bill. The McGill Muslim Law Students’ Association gave a powerful speech at the press conference outside the Courthouse. Students also constructed an open letter calling for the Bill’s repeal. The letter decries its discriminatory effects and its unconstitutional nature. This letter has now amassed the signatures of over 475 law students, faculty members and alumni. It has been published across Quebec media outlets and has been sent to legislators across Quebec.
To combat this bill, Law students at Université de Montréal have successfully distributed a survey across all Quebec universities to gather data on how Bill-21 is affecting the career prospects of students in education and law. This data will be essential to providing evidence of its discriminatory effects. In pursuit of these goals, my colleagues have built coalitions between many philosophically diverse groups. I have watched so many future jurists rise to the occasion and use their legal skills to speak against this injustice. Through tireless advocacy they have made the negative effects on substantive equality evident to the Quebec population.
It pains me that many brilliant legal minds in my year, who would produce passionate dissents as Justice Ginsburg did, will be barred from certain public positions — even though their voices are indispensable to achieving a more just society. As a fellow law student indicated, my kippah, kirpan or hijab-adorned colleagues cannot act as arbitrators, prosecutors, notaries, members of government commissions, or as clerks, or administrative justices in provincial and municipal courts.
It is a profoundly sad realization that these future jurists will be excluded from important public decisions and operations, because of their faith. Yet I remain hopeful because I see the example Justice Ginsburg set being put into practice by my peers who avoid complacency by being relentless in their pursuit of justice.
Header image design by Orly Zebak.
Meghan Albert is a second-year law student at McGill University Faculty of Law. At McGill, she is Co-President of the Jewish Law Students’ Association and acts as Head Manager at Contours Journal which explores the intersections between law and gender, from a feminist perspective. She also volunteers at the National Canadian Lawyers Initiative (NCLI), a legal clinic which was developed in response to the access to justice issues exacerbated by COVID-19. In her free time, she likes to cook and explore world cinema, with her favorite director being Pedro Almòdovar.