York University student incident creates a national debate

A York U student asked not to participate in an online course assignment because it required interactions with female students. (Photo by Ryan Hueglin)
A York U student asked not to participate in an online course assignment because it required interactions with female students. (Photo by Ryan Hueglin)

Controversy sparked at York University over concerns of human rights when Paul Grayson, a professor of sociology, refused to accommodate a male student who was unwilling to work with women in his class for religious reasons.

The student accepted Grayson’s decision; however, the issue became further contested due to York University’s decision to stand by the student’s request.

Christopher D’souza, equity expert and author spoke with The Cord in an interview, stressing that the events that transpired at York speak to a much broader issue.

“It falls under the paradigm of competing rights,” D’souza said. “I was impressed with the professor’s stance. He interpreted the decision as sending the message that women’s rights were being trumped by religious accommodation and I think he did the right thing.”

D’souza acknowledged that the student and the professor managed to come to a consensus on the issue, identifying York’s decision as the true point of contention.

“There’s a process by which agencies and institutions follow and the judgment is made by a group of people,” D’souza said. “I guess they thought that granting the accommodation wasn’t creating any due hardship on the women in the group. But the message they sent about gender equality was very skewed.”

David Matas, a lawyer specializing in human rights law, noted that the context of any conflict between human rights is of utmost importance. “When it comes to freedom of religion I think one has to make a distinction between freedom of religion in a public setting and freedom of religion in a religious context,” he said.

“But when it comes to the public realm, freedom of religion cannot mean that discrimination that exists within the religion can be projected into the public sphere because that would violate the rights of people who have completely different religions or no religion at all. In that context the right to equality has to predominate,” Matas added.

Both Matas and D’souza stressed that there is no hierarchy of human rights.

“There is no ‘this comes first all the time and that comes second’, you have to look at the context,” Matas said. “I would say that in the instance that we’re talking about here, the right to equality must predominate and the university by accommodating freedom of religion was just plain wrong.”

Milana Glumicic, aYork University student, commented on the controversy.

“I get why people want to talk about it, it’s reopening a global issue,” she said. “Where do we draw the line when it comes to accommodating in the name of religion? I think the professor made the right decision and so did the student for complying.”

Glumicic was surprised that the university stood by its decision to accommodate the student’s request.

D’souza added that this case exemplifies the complexity of the education system in Canada.  “We have a very different student population than we did 20 years ago,” he said.

“Canada is known as a very welcoming country and we do want to make people feel as welcome and respected as possible but when rights do compete there’s going to have to be some real attention paid as to what impact the decision might have on other groups.”

Representatives of York University were unavailable for comment.

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