A university student’s contentious request not to meet with female classmates on religious grounds has spilled into the political arena, attracting attention from federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay and sparking wider debate over religious accommodation.

A York University student made the request, and his professor, J. Paul Grayson, turned it down out of concern that it set a sexist precedent. The school’s dean of arts quickly disagreed, ordering that the student be accommodated and arguing it would not seriously affect other students’ rights.

On Thursday, Mr. MacKay joined a chorus of political and public comment, saying that men and women attending school together was precisely what Canada fought to accomplish when it sent soldiers to Afghanistan.

But the issue has widened into a discussion of the extent to which religious beliefs should be accommodated when they conflict with the rights of others. And even as York stands behind its decision, provost Rhonda Lenton said in an interview it is crucial at a secular institution “that we do have the expectation that males and females study alongside one another,” and that the debate should come under the microscope because “accommodation is not limitless.”

“It does need further discussion,” she said.

The York student, who cannot be named for privacy reasons, is taking an online sociology course that required him to meet with a group of peers for an assignment. He argued that “due to my firm religious beliefs … it will not be possible for me to meet in public with a group of women,” said Dr. Grayson, who continued to refuse to give an exemption, not wanting to be an “accessory to sexism.”

“You could have other students making similar requests,” Dr. Grayson argued. “… They could say, I want separate seating areas in lecture halls for males and females.”

The student eventually met with his group. But York maintains he should have been accommodated because he enrolled online, without an expectation of being on campus. A student taking the course from abroad was granted an alternative way to do the work, and Dr. Lenton suggested the university might have ruled differently had the request been made for an in-class course.

“I would say, yes, York did make the right decision in this case, taking into consideration that this was an online course,” she said.

The university’s stand has been widely condemned as sexist, including by politicians such as federal Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair. But York’s legal position is not clear. If the beliefs are sincere, it has a duty to accommodate the student unless doing so would cause the school or its students “undue hardship” – which is hard to prove, said Raj Anand, a Toronto-based human rights lawyer.

“We have exemptions in order to balance those rights,” he said. “I don’t know that there’s any great harm on a practical level to the female students in the class.“

A spokesperson for Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities supported York’s handling of the issue, saying the school “took the right steps in consulting with the human rights department, the student, and other faculty in coming to their final decision.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Jan. 09 2014, 8:37 PM EST
Last updated Thursday, Jan. 09 2014, 9:35 PM EST