The brouhaha began in September when a student in an online sociology class emailed Grayson about the class’s only in-person requirement: a student-run focus group.
“One of the main reasons that I have chosen internet courses to complete my BA is due to my firm religious beliefs,” the student wrote. “It will not be possible for me to meet in public with a group of women (the majority of my group) to complete some of these tasks.”
While Grayson’s gut reaction was to deny the request, he forwarded the email to the faculty’s dean and the director for the centre for human rights.
Their response shocked him; the student’s request was permitted.
The reasoning was apparently that students studying abroad in the same online class were given accommodations, and allowed to complete an alternative assignment.
“I think Mr. X must be accommodated in exactly the same way as the distant student has been,” the vice dean wrote to Grayson.
“York is a secular university. It is not a Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or Moslem university. In our policy documents and (hopefully) in our classes we cling to the secular idea that all should be treated equally, independent of, for example, their religion or sex or race.
“Treating Mr. X equally would mean that, like other students, he is expected to interact with female students in his group.”
A university provost, speaking on behalf of the dean, said the decision to grant the student’s request was made after consulting legal counsel, the Ontario Human Rights Code and the university’s human rights centre.
“Students often select online courses to help them navigate all types of personal circumstances that make it difficult for them to attend classes on campus, and all students in the class would normally have access to whatever alternative grading scheme had been put in place as a result of the online format,” said Rhonda Lenton, provost and vice president academic.
The director of the Centre for Human Rights also weighed in on the decision in an email to Grayson.
“While I fully share your initial impression, the OHRC does require accommodations based on religious observances.”
Well, perhaps it does, but religious accommodations must give way when they conflict with the public good, and this is a public university. Refusing to associate with women is nothing other than an attempt to cast them as second-class citizens, and that human right trumps whatever misogyny is considered a “religious right.” If Mr. X wants to go to a synagogue in which women must sit in the back, or a mosque in which women can’t pray with men, that is his right, but he doesn’t have any right to make a public university accommodate that lunacy, any more than University College London can enforce gender-segregated seating at public lectures.
What’s the logical outcome of this kind of pandering to religion? Grayson again gave the university no quarter:
The professor argued that if a Christian student refused to interact with a black student, as one could argue with a skewed interpretation of the Bible, the university would undoubtedly reject the request.
“I see no difference in this situation,” Grayson wrote.
The interesting thing is that after hearing from the dean, Grayson (not knowing the student’s religion) consulted both Orthodox Jewish and Islamic scholars at York, who both told him that there was no bar to associating with women in their faiths so long as there was no physical contact. On that basis, Grayson and his colleagues in the sociology department refused the student’s request.
In the end, the student gave in. That might be the end of it, but Grayson still may face disciplinary action (like him, though, I doubt it). Who looks bad here is the university, which would even consider granting such a request.
Apparently this kind of clash between religious and secular values is not unique in Canadian education. As the Star reports:
The incident is the latest clash between religious values and Ontario’s secular education system.
Catholic schools resisted a call by Queen’s Park to allow so-called gay-straight student clubs because of the Vatican’s historic stand against homosexuality. But the government insisted such clubs be permitted as a tool against bullying — and a nod to Ontario’s commitment to freedom of sexual orientation.
Similar debate erupted in 2011 when a Toronto school in a largely Muslim neighbourhood allowed a Friday prayer service in the school cafeteria so that students would not leave for the mosque and not return.
However fewer cases have taken place at the post-secondary level.
Well, public schools are public schools, and they’re all supported by taxpayers. Just like a public university cannot teach creationism as science in the U.S. (at least at Ball State University), so a public university in Canada cannot discriminate against women, even in the name of catering to religious faith. How can the government insist that Catholic schools accept “gay-straight” clubs on the grounds of supporting freedom of sexual orientation, yet allow a student, also on religious grounds, to discrimiante against women?
There is no end to crazy religious beliefs, and I see no reason why basic human rights should be abrogated to cater to all those beliefs. The administration of York University now has egg on its face, and Professor Grayson is the hero.
There is now a Care 2 petition that you can sign directed to Martin Singer, Dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, and Noël A. J. Badiou, Director at York University’s Centre for Human Rights, those who supported the student’s right to refuse to associate with women. It reads, in part:
The statements and decisions made in this matter by Mr. Singer and Mr. Badiou suggest that they believe gender equality is subordinate to religious beliefs. We urge York University to retract this and re-affirm their stand on gender equality and women’s rights.
You don’t have to be Canadian to sign it, and right now there are only 453 signatures. They’re aiming for 1,000, so if you agree, head over to this link and add your name.