This School's Religious V. Women's Liberty Issue

Over in Canada, Toronto's York University is struggling with the unique problem that might require them to pick a side between religious liberty and women's rights. The college is facing controversy over the dean's decision to exempt a male student from working with female classmates in his online sociology class, which the anonymous student claimed was necessary for religious reasons.

And there's a twist: Guess who's trying to pull the plug on the university's decision? The very professor whose course the student was taking, that's who.

The professor's name is Paul Grayson, and last fall he directed an online sociology class. In September, Grayson assigned his students an in-class assignment — the assignment he'd planned for them to take. The male student in question wrote this email to Grayson:

One of the main reasons that I have chosen internet courses to complete my BA is due to my firm religious beliefs. 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 task.

Grayson intended to deny the request, but after the faculty dean and director of York University's Centre for Human Rights got involved, he had to approve it. Why? Because, the university's argument went, if students studying abroad in that class had the chance to do an alternative assignment — which they did — this particular student could also do the alternative assignment.

This could have been an open-and-shut case, but Grayson didn't leave it there. He viewed the exemption as a slippery slope into letting religious beliefs to breed intolerance at the secular York University — so he decided to publicize the documents showing the student's request had been approved. He told the National Post:

Seventy per cent of the students at York University are female. This kind of situation, from that point of view, is simply intolerable.

He also told CTV News:

I've repeatedly said if we allow this kind of exclusion, we also have to allow the exclusion of Jews, blacks, gays and so on if there is a religious belief backing up a request for accommodation.

The response to the incident has been incredibly split. York University's provost, Rhonda Lenton, released a statement yesterday emphasizing that York was committed to "gender equity, inclusivity and diversity," without backing down from the decision.

On the other hand, Canada's Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair believes Grayson was correct to oppose the accommodation, and Muclear deemed the student's request unreasonable. Several professors have joined Grayson and signed a motion professing their refusal to approve of this kind of accommodation, if it led to "marginalizing" another demographic.

But one thing remains uncertain: No media outlets, nor Grayson himself, actually know which religious identity the student identifies with. Grayson would not have been allowed, under human-rights rules, to ask the student about his religion.

But Grayson has said that based on the student's name, he assumes he is an Orthodox Jew or a Muslim — and from conversations with Jewish and Muslim scholars at York, Grayson has discovered that neither Judaism nor Islam would have barred the student from interacting with female students in public. (Although it's hardly fair to judge someone's religious identity based on their name.)

The plot thickens...

Image: Flickr/Magnus D