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By Anna Mehler Paperny
TORONTO (Reuters) - A Canadian judge on Friday suspended part of a Quebec law banning people from wearing full-face veils when giving or receiving public services, handing a provisional victory to civil liberties groups who argued that the law is unconstitutional and discriminates against Muslim women.
Judge Babak Barin suspended the portion of the act banning face coverings until the government enacts guidelines for how the law will be applied and how exemptions might be granted. The government of the mainly French-speaking province of Quebec now has a chance to clarify in detail how the law would be put into practice.
The law, passed in October, affects everyone from teachers and students to hospital employees, police officers, bus drivers and transit users.
While the law does not single out any religion by name, debate has focused on the niqab, a full-face veil worn by a small minority of Muslim women.
The judge "recognised the immediate harm the law was causing to the people it affects outweighed any theoretical public purpose of the law," lawyer Catherine McKenzie, who is representing the people challenging the law, told Reuters.
Quebec's Liberal government is defending the law in court, saying it does not discriminate against Muslim women and is necessary for reasons of security, identification and communication. The act's name refers to "religious neutrality" and "accommodations on religious grounds."
"I'm not unsatisfied with the judgement because there's no mention that the law contravenes the charters (of rights)," Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard told reporters Friday, as quoted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
The National Council for Canadian Muslims welcomed the ruling "as a successful first step," its executive director Ihsaan Gardee said.
Opponents of the law say it targets a visible minority that has been subject to threats and violence. Quebec had about 243,000 Muslims as of 2011, according to Statistics Canada, out of a population of 8 million.
In January a gunman walked into a Quebec City mosque and shot six people to death. A French-Canadian university student has been charged as the sole suspect.
France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Bulgaria and the German state of Bavaria have imposed restrictions on the wearing of full-face veils in public places. Denmark plans to institute its own ban.
(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny; Additional reporting by Allison Lampert; Editing by Denny Thomas and Leslie Adler)