A debate over accommodation of religious beliefs versus gender equality rights has flared up at York University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada’s most populous and ethnically diverse city.
The issue began back in September, and although it has since been resolved, has nonetheless sparked a debate which has grown and become public recently.
A man taking a correspondence course was told by sociology professor Paul Grayson, that he was required to attend one group session with others taking the distance learning course.
The student said he wanted to be excused from the group meeting, and took the course by correspondence, because religious convictions prevented him from associating with female classmates.
The professor, feeling this was an infringement on women’s gender equality rights, rejected the request but also sought direction from the university’s Human Rights office. They in turn later sided with the student saying the university requires accommodation based on religious observances and told Grayson to allow the exemption from attending the group session.
An angry Grayson said, the university is establishing a hierarchy of rights in which religious accommodation trumps women’s equality rights.
While the religion involved has not been divulged, Muslim and Orthodox Jewish scholars at York advised professor Grayson neither religion instructs a man to avoid interaction with women in public. An Islamic scholar told Professor Grayson that, ““Unless he is asked to be physical with a female student, which I assume he isn’t, there is absolutely no justification for not interacting with females in public space,
The situation escalated when other professors sided with Grayson against the university, passing a motion against such accommodation if it marginalizes another student or staff member.
It is important to note that in the interval, the student had agreed to attend the class, but the debate now sparked, has continued to grow.
Recently a petition has appeared online urging York to re-affirm its stand on gender equality and women’s rights, and requested the university reverse its decision.
The petition reads in part, “Tell York University that we support Professor Grayson’s decision to treat all students equally regardless of gender or religious belief.
Now, federal politicians have weighed in on the debate.
Federal Justice Minister Peter Mackay said during an interview, “This is what we have tried to combat in places like Afghanistan” He added, “”Building schools there, and ensuring now that millions of girls are able to attend school alongside boys, I believe, is a very positive accomplishment of our country.”
Members of Parliament representing ridings in the vicinity of York also spoke out. Liberal MP Judy Sgro, said “This is nothing short of ridiculous. We live in a country seeking gender equality”.
Conservative MP, Mark Adler in an email, wrote that the school “needs to realize that this kind of sexism has no place in Canadian society”
York university in response to the ongoing furor released a statement on Thursday (Jan.9) saying that York is a secular institution.
The statement also reads in part. “For any accommodation request, a decision is made in consideration of the Ontario Human Rights Code, the individual circumstances, the requirements of the law, any competing rights and the academic requirements of the course. …Nevertheless, the broader issue of religious accommodations in secular universities remains an important societal concern that warrants further discussion. It is noteworthy that the Ontario Human Rights Commission is currently reviewing these matters.”