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Court Rules Canada Can’t Make Muslim Women Take Off Face Coverings in Citizenship Ceremony

The appeal judges dismissed the government's case almost instantly, saying they wanted to ensure that the woman who launched the lawsuit could take her oath in time to vote in the federal election next month.

by Rachel Browne
Sep 15 2015, 7:45pm

Imagen por Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press

In a blow to Canada's immigration minister, the Federal Court of Appeal has upheld a decision that the government's policy banning new Canadians from wearing face-coverings — also known as a niqab — while taking their citizenship oaths is illegal.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada tried to defend the policy on Tuesday, the first day of the hearing, but the appeal court dismissed their case almost instantly, saying they wanted to ensure that the woman who launched the lawsuit could take her oath in time to vote in the federal election next month.

On Wednesday, the federal government vowed to challenge the court's ruling by appealing the case to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The lawsuit was brought forward by Zunera Ishaq, a Pakistani woman who has been a Canadian permanent resident since 2008. She refused to remove her niqab during the citizenship oath because it would violate her religious belief that her face and hair must be covered in the presence of men.

Canada's federal court ruled in her favour last February, saying that the policy was "unlawful" and goes against Canadian law that says citizenship judges must allow broad religious freedom for new Canadians taking the oath.

The ruling comes at a tense time for Canada's immigration ministry, which has been facing immense backlash about its response to the ongoing refugee crisis.

Lorne Waldman, one of Ishaq's lawyers, told VICE News that his client "extremely pleased" with the court's decision. "The court of appeal went out of its way to render its decision quickly and we're going to do everything we can to ensure that she can get her citizenship as soon as possible … She'll now be able to take the oath without having to unveil." he said.

"The fact that the court today unequivocally confirmed that the policy was unlawful was very gratifying."

Related: Canada Wants Muslim Women to Take Off Their Face Coverings For Citizenship Oath

Prime Minister Stephen Harper vehemently opposed the lower court's decision to strike down the ban, telling reporters earlier this year that it's "offensive that someone would hide their identity at the very moment when they're committing to join the Canadian family."

According to a poll conducted this March, the majority of Canadians oppose women wearing niqabs when taking their oaths to become citizens.

The Conservative government tabled new legislation in June that would require people to uncover their face during their citizenship ceremony.

In a statement released Tuesday, the Conservative Party expressed its disappointment with the court's decision and emphasized that the other federal leaders "are offside with Canadians on this issue. "[T]he Government is considering all legal options" and will "provide an update in the days ahead," the statement says.

"We believe that citizenship candidates should take the Oath of Citizenship publicly with their face uncovered, which is consistent with Canadian values of openness, social cohesion, and equality."

Citizenship and Immigration Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne