Quebec Court Judge Eliana Marengo, who had told Rania El-Alloul that her case would be heard on condition that her hijab be removed in February 2015, is ready to apologize for her order. The province’s judicial council stated that the judge will offer a letter of apology to El-Alloul which will be made public, in exchange for the dropping of disciplinary complaints launched against Marengo as a result of her comments. The news comes as a settlement agreement is finalized between the parties.
A five-year legal battle between Marengo and El-Alloul started when El-Alloul appeared in court in order to retrieve her impounded car. “In my opinion, you are not suitably dressed,” Marengo told El-Alloul at the time. “Decorum is important. Hats and sunglasses, for example are not allowed. And I don’t see why scarves on the head would be either.”
Marengo continued, “I will therefore not hear you if you are wearing a scarf on your head, just as I would not allow a person to appear before me wearing a hat or sunglasses on his or her head, or any other garment not suitable for a court proceeding.”
El-Alloul, who described the experience as humiliating, refused to remove her hijab. “I felt that I had to choose between my sincerely held beliefs and my fundamental right to be heard by a court on an application that was important to me,” she said.
After hiring renown Canadian human rights and constitutional lawyer Julius Grey, El-Alloul and Grey filed a motion to have the Quebec Superior Court issue a statement clarifying that religious attire is permitted in courts. In October 2018, after the case was appealed, Quebec’s Court of Appeal ruled that Marengo’s order for El-Alloul to remove her hijab was a violation of her fundamental rights. The decision stated that citizens who appear in front of the courts should be allowed to have access to justice while exhibiting their freedom of religious expression.
The appeal panel, composed of three judges, stated that courts are indeed spaces of religious neutrality, within limits. “This does not mean, however, that judges may rely on the neutrality of the courts alone as a justification for preventing litigants from accessing a courtroom simply because they are expressing sincerely held religious beliefs” the appeal panel stated.
Additionally, numerous complaints were filed with the Conseil de la magistrature, the body that hears complaints against judges within the province. A committee was formed to investigate Marengo’s conduct in 2016. Marengo attempted to halt the investigations by filing appeals both with the Court of Appeal, and later with the Supreme Court of Canada who refused to hear her case. The Court of Appeal stated that continuation of the investigation was necessary, as it is “the only possible avenue for an enlightened justice.”