Religious accommodation or ‘accessory to sexism’? York student’s case stirs debate

A student’s request to be excused from course work on religious grounds so he would not have to interact with female peers has opened a fractious debate over how institutions navigate between competing human rights.

J. Paul Grayson, a sociology professor at York University, received the request in September and denied it, arguing it would give tacit support to a negative view of women. But the dean of the faculty of arts disagreed and has ordered him to grant the accommodation.

A standoff has ensued over the degree to which religious accommodation is reasonable at a public, secular university. Dr. Grayson argues that approving the request would make him “an accessory to sexism,” and could give others a precedent to avoid interacting with students of a given race, creed or sexual orientation. Martin Singer, the dean, countered that the school is legally obliged to heed the student’s wishes, and other students would not be seriously affected.

The debate highlights a tension that arises when asserting one person’s rights collides with those of another and the two must be made to coexist. The solutions can be especially provocative at universities, which must champion respect for human rights while nurturing diverse beliefs.

Dr. Grayson has continued to refuse the request, at the risk of possible discipline. Neither he nor the university can identify the student or his religion for privacy reasons.

“You have to nip this in the bud, because what you’re dealing with here is a basic hornet’s nest,” Dr. Grayson said in an interview. “What if … I said, well, my religion really frowns upon my interacting with blacks?”

The student is taking an online course, but is expected to meet in person with a group of classmates for a mandatory assignment. Dr. Grayson said the student argued that “due to my firm religious beliefs … it will not be possible for me to meet in public with a group of women.”

Dr. Grayson sent the request to Dr. Singer and the director of the university’s Centre for Human Rights, Noël Badiou, seeking support. But the dean’s office said that because Dr. Grayson exempted a student who is taking the course abroad from meeting with a group at York, the other student should be treated the same.

“Each request for accommodation based on religious beliefs is considered based on the facts in accordance with the Ontario Human Rights Code,” Rhonda Lenton, York’s provost, said in an e-mail. But she also said the case is “complicated” by the fact that alternate arrangements were made for the other student to complete the work.

“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,” she said.

In a series of confidential letters, Dr. Singer also argued that granting the request “does not, in my opinion, qualify as a ‘substantial impact’ on any other student’s rights.”

To grant a religious accommodation, the university must decide the beliefs are sincere, and that it will not interfere with other students’ experience or harm the course’s academic integrity.

The school’s human rights centre agreed with the dean. But on Oct. 9, the sociology department sided with Dr. Grayson, passing a motion stating, “Whereas it is recognized that York recognizes diversity, be it resolved that academic accommodations for students will not be made if they contribute to material or symbolic marginalizations of other students, faculty or teaching assistants.”

The next day, Dr. Grayson denied the student’s request.

The dean’s office told the student if he wished to drop the course, the fee would be refunded. But less than a week later, the student told Dr. Grayson he would “respect the final decision” to deny the request, was pleased with the way it had been handled, and has since met with his learning group. Even so, York has not changed its stand.

“What concerns me is that there’s an apparatus there that says this kind of thing’s okay, and you could have other students making similar requests,” Dr. Grayson said. “... There is room here for decision-making, and as far as I’m concerned, York has made the wrong decision.”