Jan 24, 2017

In Quebec, fear of religious discrimination as zoning rules used to clamp down on mosques

National Post
Graeme Hamilton

January 22, 2017

MONTREAL — One night last summer during Ramadan, the suburb of Mascouche dispatched inspectors to a Muslim community centre in search of unlawful activity. They found 20 men praying, and that was enough to declare the building an illegal place of worship. Citing its zoning bylaw, the municipality north of Montreal revoked the centre’s operating permit.

The clash, which is now before the courts, was the latest example of a trend that has seen Quebec municipalities use zoning restrictions to thwart the efforts of minority religious communities — primarily Muslims — to establish places of worship. But a court victory this month by another Islamic centre in Montreal contains a warning to municipalities that the tactic can infringe on religious freedoms.

Haroun Bouazzi, co-president of the Association of Muslims and Arabs for a Secular Quebec, says municipal and provincial politicians are failing in their responsibility to counter public suspicions of Islam.

“There is a real fear inside the population surrounding mosques,” he said, noting that many have experienced vandalism.

“What is important is that our politicians — Mayor (Denis) Coderre, Premier (Philippe) Couillard — cool the situation down and remind everyone that Quebecers of the Muslim faith are citizens just like any others, and they have a constitutional right to have access to places of worship.”

On the surface, the notion that Quebec could be short of places to worship seems laughable. Mark Twain called Montreal “a city where you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window,” and steeples remain a defining feature of the Quebec landscape.

But with established, and increasingly empty, Christian churches occupying prime sectors zoned for religious worship, faiths practiced by more recent immigrants are often relegated, like strip clubs, to inhospitable industrial zones. By one estimate, close to half the places of worship of minority religions are technically illegal, listed as community centres because zoning would not allow a place of worship.

This has made it easy for municipal officials to clamp down when residents get nervous about a mosque operating in their neighbourhood. Muslim communities in Shawinigan, Mascouche, Terrebonne, Saint-Lambert and a number of Montreal boroughs have all hit zoning obstacles with existing or new mosques. Julius Grey, a constitutional lawyer representing the Essalam Community Centre targeted by Mascouche, said he has four other clients from minority religious communities contesting similar restrictions.

On Jan. 12, Superior Court Justice Jean-Yves Lalonde provided the groups some hope with a ruling in favour of the Badr Islamic Centre in Montreal’s Saint-Léonard borough. Responding to complaints about worshippers at Friday prayer taking up parking spots, the borough changed its zoning in 2004 to prohibit religious ceremonies.

The judge found the change violated the centre’s acquired rights, but he went further to find subsequent zoning changes that restricted places of worship to an industrial area infringed on constitutionally guaranteed religious freedoms.

“This measure adopted by the city in 2010 has the effect of encouraging ghettoization and an accessibility problem and proves to be, in a way, discriminatory with relation to traditional Catholic churches that are typically in residential neighbourhoods in Montreal,” Lalonde wrote.

Frédéric Dejean, a researcher at Montreal’s Collège de Maisonneuve, has studied what he calls “religious zoning.” He said it has been used to restrict evangelical Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hassidic Jews as well as Muslims.

While there can be legitimate urban-planning reasons for wanting to specify where places of worship can be established, Dejean said the practical rules are often invoked to hide political motives. And he said it is risky for zoning inspectors to be tasked with deciding what constitutes a religious activity.

In Mascouche, the Essalam Community Centre won a reprieve last July pending a final decision in its court challenge. Superior Court Justice Brian Riordan suggested the municipality had been hasty in condemning the centre for refusing to prohibit prayer within its walls. “Not prohibiting prayer does not automatically mean the place becomes a religious building,” he said. A spokesperson for the centre declined comment while the case remains before the courts.

Grey, the lawyer representing Essalam, said Quebec’s embrace of secularism following the Quiet Revolution has fed a rejection of religion, and it is the faiths of new immigrants that have been hit the hardest.

“I think we now have to reconsider the principle of zoning with respect to religious groups,” he said. “I think a religious institution should probably be lawful in any residential area.”

The Coderre administration had no comment last week on the Badr ruling, saying its lawyers are studying the decision to determine their next step. Asked for comment on the zoning obstacles facing religious groups in Montreal, a city spokesman said such decisions are up to individual boroughs.

Bouazzi said a lack of political leadership has “institutionalized exclusion.” In extreme cases, this can lead to radicalization among young Muslims, he said, but more often there is just a sense of alienation. “Without going as far as violent radicalism, there is exclusion because these kids don’t feel welcome and don’t feel like Quebecers,” he said.

• Email: ghamilton@nationalpost.com


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