York professor right to deny religious request

University’s zeal for accommodation went too far


York University

Mark this week on your calendars. This is the week that religious accommodation at Canadian universities officially went too far.

University Affairs magazine reported this week that a professor at a major Canadian university was under fire after he denied the request of a student who, for religious reasons, refused to work in a group with female students. Today, we learn that the professor is J. Paul Grayson and his employer, York University, is now “incensed,” according to this National Post account.

As a professor, I wish I was surprised, but I’m not. Universities have for years been falling over themselves to place an insane notion of absolute accommodation ahead of all else. Perhaps the fallout from this latest blunder will finally convince our schools to start being more reasonable.

Accommodation as a guiding principle at universities began with the very best of intentions. I can scarcely believe my own memory when I look back at my undergraduate years and recall that it was nearly impossible for any student in a wheelchair to enter University College at the University of Western Ontario where most of my classes were held. The second floor of my own university library could be accessed by the disabled only with difficulty until just a few years ago. Blind students can now get recordings of their textbooks created for them, and the deaf can get written versions of lectures. We should be justly proud of these advances.

But none of these is analogous to the religious student who believes God doesn’t want him doing sociology with girls. (Professor Grayson, by the way, doesn’t even know which God that student prefers: he told the Toronto Star he suspects the student is either Muslim or Orthodox Jewish.)

The kinds of accommodations I mentioned above are all reasonable. What’s the difference between a reasonable and unreasonable accommodation? Here’s a start: reasonable accomodations are to be made when the student has no choice in the difficulty he faces.

The student who needs a wheelchair can’t choose to walk when she needs to. But the religious student, however he was raised, always has a choice because religion is a matter of belief. Even if many tend to hold to the religion they grew up with, as a matter of fact, people of every faith around the world make exceptions and compromises and favourable interpretations to get by. Plenty of Jews eat bacon, just as Catholics use birth control. Many Muslims drink alcohol, and Buddhists eat meat. This is to say nothing of the fact that increasingly people are seeing traditional religions as just that, traditions, and not statements of absolute truth.

Of course, if you want to stick to your guns and hold to an extreme version of your faith, that’s your right. And I will defend your right to your beliefs. And I can respect that you’re trying to live your life in a personally authentic way. But it is personal. And you can’t expect others to accommodate you. You have to accommodate them.

So I applaud Professor Grayson and I hope he sticks to his decision and is not cowed by university mandarins who seem to have lost sight of the demands of intellectual integrity. Happily, and perhaps ironically, the wave of criticism that York is sure to get on this may finally turn the tide and return accommodation to what it should be: providing a safe harbour, not throwing professors overboard.


York professor right to deny religious request

  1. So you teach on good Friday?

    • Yes I do work on the Friday before Easter; I am not Christian. Further, so do all the other Christian teachers who work at my school. So do all the teachers in my school district. We expect all the students to come to school on that day. Good Friday is not a holiday. If you want to take the day off, you apply to use a personal day — just like Jewish teachers may apply to take their holy days off, if they so choose — just like any other celebrant of any religion applies to take specific days off. I do not see your point.

      How is this relevant to the discrimination against women?

    • Good Friday is a Holiday for Christians and the majority of people living in the American Continent (which includes Canada) are Christians, being Catholics the largest group. So, it is customary not to work on Good Friday and schools, colleges and universities are usually closed on this day.
      All this to explain that your comment about “teaching on Good Friday” is not applicable in this part of the Earth. In Winnipeg there is a university that has divided its chapel in two separate rooms, to accommodate Muslims prayers while keeping a decent space for Christian students. I cannot imagine a better example of accommodation, almost bordering the limits of the reasonable!

  2. Yes Gavin lets get rid of all religious accommodation, it has no part in a modern society. No more Christmas, Good Friday or any other religious holidays, if you wish to observe these traditions then it is a personal choice and you need to make plans accordingly.

    • The celebration of Christmas is not, and has nothing to tdo with, religious accomodation. It’s part of a period where people celebrate the outgoing year and welcome the new one.

    • This is Canada, built on Judeo-Christian tenets. I am not religious, but I am not prepared to change our whole way of living to accommodate newcomers who don’t like what happens in Canada. If that is the case, then go where you feel more comfortable. And John Brewer, I have to assume that you work on religious holidays.

  3. I agree with you! This is unacceptable in a country as Canada, religious freedom should not be used as an excuse to sanction misogyny.

  4. Women are not to be segregated from men! That’s it! But what we have here judging from the news is a new policy from York University that arose from this case on accommodating students taking online courses – globally from York – who do not wish to mix with other gender. Which means York, and likely other Canafian universities with growing online education business, is thinking about the money. This is a business decision that trumps human rights, in thus case, women’s.
    The student back in Sept agreed to meet fellow female students after all, at his professor’s request, so good on thus young fellow, he could himself accommodate, and this, a good step for him in a world of strenuous attempts to improve the lot of women.

  5. As it is now illegal for traditional mens clubs to bar women , so should this ridiculous decision be illegal.
    Any religion that bars women from interacting with men is discriminatory in the least. At least the professor should have asked the religion that the objector belongs to , to investigate further , or simply tell said objector that they cannot be accommodated ,as Canadian rights & freedoms must come first .

  6. I love my country, but we have been brainwashed to tolerate intolerance. It’s time to revamp human rights to be clear on such issues as this. Bravo to Quebec for at least setting the rules, you may not like them, but at least they are clear.

    • Thanks. I’m not a sovereignist/separatist, but I do applaud the ground-breaking initiative from the Québec governement. I’m not sure I agree, though, with banning Muslim headgear in daycares where the clientele is Muslim; this maybe a bit too intrusive. But regarding public servants, to me, it goes without saying.

  7. if a religion doesn’t want a man to interact with a woman. can’t it be said vice versa therefore bow is it discrimination to just women?

    • trolling?: With a question like that, yes, you are a troll.

  8. Reasonable accommodation is a legal term and has a legal definition that has been provided by the courts. With all due respect, Prof. Pettigrew, the definition that you prefer is irrelevant.

    I’m not saying that York admin was correct, but I think it is likely that they put more consideration into the situation than “the student’s subjective religious belief is stupid and can change”, which, in my opinion, really appears to be your argument.

  9. Todd Pettigrew is here simply upholding his long-standing tradition of commitment to a radically secularist ideology. That ideology is not worldview neutral, as he & his supporters like to imagine. It’s likely more intolerant and less liberal than most other worldviews embraced by Canadians, whether or not they embrace some religious worldview.

    • Al: Your point being what? That you have no coherent thought?

  10. First, the “student” is Muslim and the whole purpose was and is to create a precedent; in which he has succeeded.
    York University is not a Muslim religious institute, and if that Muslim Guy cannot study with women, he should apply to Al Azhar university in Egypt.

    • I agree with this comment. Why can’t we as Canadians, set some standards for immigrants, one of which is that that men and women study together in Canada. When people take their oath of citizenship, gender segregation should be addressed. Those people who take themselves seriously, as this man obviously does, might consider what it means to live here, and really consider what that entails. Women’s rights should trump religious freedom, whatever the religion — and that goes for Catholics too!

    • Way to jump to conclusions, EZB. The professor who denied the student even said that he doesn’t know for sure what religion the guy belonged to, but that he assumed he was either Muslim or Orthodox Jewish (and for the ignorant folks like EZB, Orthodox Jewish is VERY strict on sex and also quite persistent with archaic, male-centered values, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the York guy is part of an extremist branch of Orthodox Judaism). I agree that some people are too demanding with their religion, but honestly it’s people like EZB who makes our society even worse by being so quick to judge without RESEARCHING the facts.

  11. Keeping in mind all those gods only exists in our pointy little heads.

  12. Keeping in mind that all those gods only exists in some peoples pointy little heads.

  13. If any student has such a problem why attend that school? I am sure there are many schools in other countries where a male would not have to work with a female? What is the issue here – an honest belief that such a situation would violate a male’s rights or just another ploy to force yet, one more, unwanted, undemocratic change on a country that bends over backwards to accommodate?

  14. why did this student not go to an all male university if this is an issue? york is co-ed. the university was WRONG to support this student. there is something else going on here. since when does political correctness in canada support religion over gender?

  15. Comparative Anatomy (January 11, 2014)

    The Pooh-Bah at York has a spine
    Attuned to religion – the pitch of its whine:
    It makes correct bow
    In sexist kowtow –
    Then nervously smiles, its toes on the line.

  16. No person, who supports misogynist views, should work in a position of authority for a co-ed University. This student was stretching his political muscle in causing this problem at York University and he must be enjoying watching the fallout.

  17. Dr. P. Grayson is a well-respected senior professor, well informed about social issues. As a professor emerita, I am proud of his public stance. It is time that more senior professors express their views when the issue is one that requires some serious public reflection about core societal values. Tenure is the protection offered to professors who help us to think more deeply. No University Administration has the right to silence a professor who speaks out about topics on which he or she has professional expertise. As a woman, I am grateful to pro-feminist men such as Paul Grayson and applaud his courage. Much has been written about who women must learn to work with men. Now, it seems that much needs to be written about how men must learn to work with women. Canada is not exempt from this profound change.

  18. You know the problem with ” common sense”.. It’s not common anymore.
    We accommodate in so many areas these days. This case makes me pretty mad
    it is so stupid. EH?
    Good for Dr Grayson. We need to stand up to this Garbage once and for all!

  19. Despite what one commenter said, Good Friday is not recognized as a holiday here in the US and businesses and schools are not typically closed – unless they have a religious affiliation, such as parochial schools.

    In some parts of the country there may have been a tradition of closing on Good Friday, but that has become increasingly rare. Because of the timing, Good Friday sometimes falls during spring break but that’s about the extent of it.

    This student has mistaken a public university for a private religious institution, and should consider a transfer to a school that follows his/her religious beliefs.

  20. The student who objects to female fellow students probably gets to classes by bus with female fellow passengers. Worse, the bus driver could be female. When the subway reaches the university, the student may not even notice the gender of the train driver.

  21. I have to disagree with the professor in this particular case and with the comments made in general. The Professor SHOULD have asked what religion the student is and should have been accommodated. (In Arab nations, many non Muslim groups have women who can publically foregoe the hijab, apparently, Canada can not be as tolerant as Yeman.)In General however, I have this to say: In Canada, there are people who have other values besides Secularism and I am not just referring to immigrants, many people have been born here who have long standing Christian values and Jewish values (Both of whom have been here since the very beginning of the nation) and yes many devout Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Jews have been born here. Canada is becoming a society that can not tolerate a woman wearing a headscarf, but can tolerate a people running around half naked. To all of the Secularists on this site, look at the tolerance and freedom your ideology has bread, you have created the most intolerant worldvoew that the world has ever known.