Second Canadian judge suspends Quebec niqab ban

TORONTO (Reuters) - A second Canadian judge suspended Quebec’s ban on face-coverings on Thursday, handing a victory to the law’s opponents who have challenged it on grounds that it discriminates against Muslim women and violates constitutional rights.

FILE PHOTO: Women in traditional garb gather to protest against Quebec's proposed Charter of Values in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, September 14, 2013. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi/File Photo

The ban, which forbids face-coverings on anyone giving or receiving public services, was enacted last October. It affects everyone from teachers and students to hospital employees, police officers, bus drivers and transit users in the mostly French-speaking province.

While the law does not single out any religion by name, debate has focused on the niqab, a full-face veil worn by a small minority of Muslim women.

A judge in December suspended the ban until the provincial government crafted regulations. The completed regulations, which included arrangements for individuals to obtain religious exemptions, were poised to take effect on Sunday.

But another judge on Thursday deemed the new rules confusing and ambiguous and suspended implementation again while the court challenge goes ahead.

Quebec Superior Court Judge Marc-Andre Blanchard wrote in his ruling that the law appeared on its face to violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, adding it could cause Muslim women “irreparable harm.”

Quebec’s Liberal government has defended the law, saying it does not discriminate against Muslim women and is necessary for reasons of security, identification and communication. The act’s name refers to “religious neutrality” and “accommodations on religious grounds.”

Opponents say it targets a visible minority that has been subject to threats and violence. Quebec had about 243,000 Muslims as of 2011, according to Statistics Canada, out of a population of 8 million.

In January 2017, a gunman walked into a Quebec City mosque and shot six people to death. A French-Canadian university student has pleaded guilty.

Commenting on the latest ruling, lawyer Catherine McKenzie, who represents the plaintiffs, said: “I would hope the takeaway is that the courts are still there to protect and defend citizens against government action that doesn’t pass constitutional muster.”

France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Bulgaria and the German state of Bavaria have imposed restrictions on the wearing of full-face veils in public places. Denmark plans to institute its own ban.

Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny; Editing by Peter Cooney