There has been a furor over York University's decision to grant a male student an exemption from an assignment that would have required him to work with female students. When the news broke, public reaction was swift and negative. The incident points out the intense emotion that we bring to discussions when fundamental rights (in this case, the religious rights and the rights of women) come into conflict. Below is my recent newspaper column, also published online at Troy Media, on the topic.
Has York University turned back the clock on gender equality?
Has York University turned back the clock on gender equality? Is the university’s decision to grant a male student an exemption from a group assignment that required him to work with female students a threat to the rights of women? While I personally consider the student’s request offensive, I am not convinced that the level of criticism aimed at York University is entirely fair.
Sometime in September, a male student who was enrolled in an on-line class requested an exemption from an on-campus group assignment on the basis that his religious beliefs prevented him from intermingling with women. The course professor, Paul Grayson, denied the request and forwarded it to the Dean and the university’s Center for Human Rights, expecting to receive a “principled statement” in support of his decision. Instead, the university instructed him to accommodate the student. Grayson stuck to his guns, refused the exemption, and the student completed the assignment without any further fuss or bother. When the student’s request to the public’s attention in January, public opinion quickly came down against the university; there is a consensus that with this exemption the university is condoning sexism.
The university argues that it approved the request for an exemption not for religious reasons, but rather on the nature of an on-line course. In an interview with CBC radio’s Metro Morning, Rhonda Lenton, Provost at York University, explained the determining factor in making the decision: the course was advertised as an on-line course, and there was not an expectation that students would attend on-campus sessions. Had the course been an on-campus course, Lenton believes the university would have denied the student’s request.
A customer service problem
It seems to me that the university was trying to correct a customer service problem: the course was not delivered in the manner in which it was marketed, and the university wanted to remedy the problem. One wonders, though, why the university did not make a straightforward refusal of the request for religious accommodation, and then deal with the requirements for an on-line course as a separate matter. Combining the two things has only confounded the issue.
The university’s explanation of its decision has had little effect, if any, on the debate which has pitted religious accommodation against women’s rights. How far should a public institution go to accommodate an individual’s religious beliefs when those beliefs conflict with a societal value? There is no easy answer, although it seems reasonable to me that a public institution would opt to resolve this type of conflict between rights on the side of inclusivity.
Emotions influence our reaction and opinion
The public reaction to the university’s handling of the student’s request for religious accommodation illustrates the tension that arises when fundamental rights are in competition. It is not surprising that the university finds itself at the center of an emotionally charged controversy given the high degree of importance that Canadian society places on gender equality and that individuals place on religion. Surely, the university foresaw the public reaction, and could have handled the request differently.
While I think that the university made a misstep and ‘got it wrong’, I also think that some of the criticism leveled at York has been overblown. Emotional rhetoric, such as evidenced in Federal Justice Minister Peter Mackay’s comment, “…we did not send soldiers to Afghanistan to protect the rights of women to only see those same rights eroded here at home”, serves no useful purpose in helping Canadian society sort out the thorny issue of religious accommodation; an issue that we can expect to encounter more frequently as Canadian society becomes more diverse.
I was initially appalled that a public university would countenance this student’s request to be excused from working with women. And while I have modified my reaction somewhat based on the university’s explanation, I still find the request unpalatable. I shudder when anyone uses religion to marginalize women, or any group of people, for that matter, and I feel very strongly about gender equality. But, I disagree that given the reasons for this exemption, York University is eroding women’s rights in Canada and promoting sexism.