Supreme Court confirms that workplace safety can supersede freedom of religion
In October 2019, we reported that the Quebec Court of Appeal dismissed the application of three Sikh truckers who challenged a company policy requiring them to wear a safety helmet over their turban in certain circumstances.
This decision is now final since, on April 30, 2020, their application for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court was dismissed without reasons, as is the norm in such circumstances.
The policy in dispute requires all truckers to wear a helmet when they leave their truck to walk around port terminals, where they carry out part of their work.
In this case, the employers gave ample evidence of the objective dangerousness of the work environment. Consequently, the courts ruled that a health and safety policy that is intended to be as unintrusive as possible must take precedence over the minimal and temporary impairment of freedom of religion.
Furthermore, the three appellants in this case did not offer any alternatives. Their petition was limited to an outright exemption from wearing the helmet, even if they could wear it over their turban.
As reported in October 2019, considering the health and safety obligations of employers under the Criminal Code, the Canada Labour Code, the Act respecting occupational health and safety and applicable regulations, the courts have now confirmed that when balancing benefits and harms, the goal of workplace safety may outweigh a temporary adverse impact on workers’ freedom of religion. In such contexts, the infringement of freedom of religion can also be justified under the Quebec Charter.
This case demonstrates that a well-written health and safety policy that has a substantial objective and is as unintrusive as possible with respect to individual rights and freedoms will be difficult to challenge in court.