Despite pressure from political leaders, radio talk-show hosts and callers and newspaper editorials, Canada’s York University has stuck to a decision that it should comply with a student’s request to not interact with women in campus seminars.
The issue arose last September when a student on an online sociology course informed Paul Grayson, the professor teaching the programme, that “due to his firm religious beliefs” he could not interact with female students in study groups.
Professor Grayson refused the request from the student, who is thought to be either an Orthodox Jew or a Muslim. However, the faculty dean, Martin Singer, who was copied in on their emails, disagreed.
In support of his decision, Dr Singer argued, among other things, that as the student was studying online, he could not be made to come to the university’s Toronto campus.
But most disturbing to Professor Grayson was the administration’s acceptance – based on the Ontario Human Rights Code – of the student’s religious arguments against working with women. “I wrote back asking: ‘Can I assume that a similar logic would apply if the group with which he did not want to interact was composed of blacks, Muslims or homosexuals?’ After all, biblical justification can be found to justify the exclusion of these groups, too,” Professor Grayson said.
Professor Grayson sent copies of his email exchange with Dr Singer to York University’s Centre for Human Rights, which agreed with the dean that the student should be accommodated.
Despite this, in mid-October the student accepted Professor Grayson’s decision. The controversy, however, rumbled on.
“Even though the student is doing very well in the course and is a very good participant, the dean continues to hold his position and continues to want me to go to the student and grant the request because it accords with their restrictive reading of the Human Rights Code. Somehow they’ve gotten themselves into a position in which ‘a reading of religion’ trumps gender equality,” Professor Grayson said.
The university said that it was helping to foster debate. Rhonda Lenton, York’s provost and vice-president academic, said that it was “committed to gender equity, inclusivity and diversity and proud of our tradition of debating complicated issues of societal interest”. Dr Singer declined to comment.
But the case has sparked highly critical comment from politicians.
Peter MacKay, Canada’s minister of justice, said that although he was “cognizant” of the need to accommodate religious groups, Canada “has very strong values and an uncompromising commitment to gender equality. And that means that women’s roles, including as students, cannot be diminished either in reality or symbolically.”
Meanwhile, politicians in Quebec have been warmed by the sight of anglophone politicians wrangling over such questions.
The province’s government is in the midst of trying to implement a Charter of Values that would ban public servants, including university staff, from wearing ostentatious religious symbols.
Bernard Drainville, minister for democratic institutions, told The Globe and Mail: “The debate in Quebec is opening the eyes of many people in the rest of Canada. They are becoming aware that they have the same problem as us.”