When a male student at York University recently requested — for religious reasons — that he be excused from interacting with female classmates, it led to an intense debate over competing rights and religious accommodation.
The school’s sociology professor, Paul Grayson, denied the request because he says it infringed upon the rights of his female students “to be treated with respect and as equals.” Grayson was overruled by the dean of arts, who felt that a religious right trumped gender equality. But by then, the student had already accepted Grayson’s decision and completed his assignment along with others, including females. Crisis averted.
Nevertheless, similar requests will have real and negative consequences for women and girls, not only in schools and universities, but also in business and elsewhere. Hard-fought gains for gender equality will be undermined. The event at York University also exposes the need for greater clarity in our thinking about the nature and limits of religious freedom.
For the most part, Canada’s Charter of Rights guarantees a list of “fundamental freedoms” and assures protection against discrimination on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age, as well as a mental or physical disability. But protection of someone’s religious rights, for example, ends where that protection would infringe upon the rights of another. In other words, religious freedom is not unique, but rather one among a wider set of freedoms.
Of course, many Canadians profess to be religious believers. Yet despite this freedom to practice religion, we also recognize that our public institutions are largely secular in nature. It’s one thing to enforce the separation of males and females in a mosque or a traditional Jewish synagogue. It’s quite another to attempt to impose such a separation in a public school or university. Some religions will not allow women to be priests or ministers, and that is for them to decide, but they cannot expect to apply similar gender-based limitations elsewhere in society. Some churches refuse to marry same sex couples and are within their right to do so, but they cannot expect to prevent those marriages from taking place in other churches or in courthouses.
This is not to say that religious organizations should be prevented from participating in public debates about legislation of all sorts: taxation, climate change, poverty, childcare or foreign policy. After all, it’s their right to. But their influence will be only as good as their arguments.
This piece appeared as a blog entry on the United Church Observer website on January 23, 2014.