MONTREAL – A judge’s decision to deny a woman’s day in court because of her hijab goes against the principles of Canadian law, another Quebec tribunal has ruled.
But Superior Court Justice Wilbrod Decarie also said that although Rania El-Alloul’s treatment was regrettable, he could not guarantee she would be allowed to wear her hijab during future court appearances.
El-Alloul’s lawyers had been seeking a legal opinion that would clarify the rights of Quebecers who want access to justice while wearing religious attire.
They had asked for a declaration that El-Alloul’s right to freedom of religion had been violated and that she has has the right to be heard in court wearing her hijab or other religious attire.
In February 2015, Quebec court Judge Eliana Marengo told El-Alloul her case involving the province’s automobile insurance board and her impounded vehicle would not proceed as long as she was wearing the hijab.
She refused to remove it and the judge put off the case. It was ultimately settled when the car was returned.
In his decision handed down earlier this week, Decarie wrote that Marengo’s argument at the time — that the courtroom should be a secular space — went against the principles of Canadian law protecting freedom of religion.
He said Marengo’s decision restricted El-Alloul’s right to exercise her “sincere religious beliefs” without any compelling reason to do so.
“The court sympathizes with her and greatly regrets the way she was treated,” he wrote.
But his ruling does not mean El-Alloul or other women will be able to wear hijabs at future court appearances.
“Each case must be evaluated in light of the context that exists during the witness’s appearance,” he said. “We cannot declare in advance, absolutely and without context, that El-Alloul will have the right to wear the hijab during future appearances before the court of Quebec.
“Nobody can predict the future.”
Decarie said he could not make the declaration El-Alloul was seeking, partly because her case became moot when her vehicle was returned to her.
He also concluded there is no evidence Quebec court judges systemically refuse to allow testimony from women who wear hijabs.
In a statement, El-Alloul said the entire experience had been difficult for her and her family.
“It was important for me to hear another judge agree that it was wrong and should not have happened,” she said. “I continue to hope that no one will ever be treated like I was.”
Julius Grey, El-Alloul’s lawyer, said he was happy with the finding that the original judge had been wrong, but expressed disappointment Decarie stopped short of affirming women have a right to wear a hijab in court.
Grey said he will likely appeal the decision.