In the fall of 2013, a York University student asked sociology Professor Paul Grayson to be excused from group work so that he would not have to interact with female students. The student claimed that he was forbidden by his religion to “meet with women in public”. While the student had chosen to take the course online, it had been made clear at the outset that in-class group work would be required.
Professor Grayson denied the request, reasoning that it would infringe on the female students' rights to be treated with respect and as equals. The department of sociology agreed with the professor. The student accepted the decision and participated in the group work alongside female students. In essence, Professor Grayson wisely balanced the competing rights at stake (personal religious belief versus the wider societal interest/value of gender equality).
But the issue is far from over. The administration of York University continues to insist that the student should have been granted religious accommodation, seeing no harm in allowing a male student to be exempt from interacting with female students. There is a possibility that Professor Grayson could face disciplinary measures. This raises a critical question: Are our institutions ready to balance competing rights, as outlined by the Ontario Human Rights Commission? Judging by the case, it seems not.
York came to this decision after consulting its own Centre for Human Rights and the Ontario Human Rights Code. Clearly, York’s administration is not implementing the OHRC's ground-breaking Policy on Competing Rights that was unveiled in 2012 at York University, and states: "There have been cases where a person’s objections to what they see as a violation of their rights have not been successful because their views are not consistent with society’s underlying values on human rights and equality. Decision makers should apply a contextual analysis that considers constitutional values and societal interests including equality rights of women..."
Our Human Rights Code should not be interpreted to allow a “religious belief” (note: no religion forbids the interaction of men and women in public) to trump gender equality. Furious public reaction to York's decision shows that this accommodation violates gender equality that is clearly and deeply held by Ontarians of all faiths and backgrounds.
In Ontario's increasingly diverse society, we must clarify cases (such as the one at York) right at the outset. Right now, there is a lot of confusion, anger, and loss of confidence that our institutions will uphold gender equality. York’s administration must reverse its decision. If it chooses not to do so, then the Ontario Human Rights Commission must address this case so that Ontarians can have clear direction. If not, more cases like the one at York University may emerge, resulting in the loss of confidence in our institutions, and threatening all of our rights in the process.
Creative Commons Photo Credit: Theonlysilentbob