Religious accommodation: Not an easy decision

By Patrick Hunter Thursday January 16 2014 in Opinion
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York University’s decision to overturn a professor’s refusal to accommodate a student’s request on the basis of his belief that his religion forbids him to work with women has caused a verbal explosion. This is a very important debate that needs to be explained and understood. It is not an easy decision, in spite of the knee-jerk objections that it caused.


My daughter came over this past weekend, highly worked up because she had an argument with a neighbour on our street whose response was critical of the accommodation decision that York University made. Perhaps most painful was the neighbour’s interpretation of the decision in a manner that was unbelievably stupid and hurtful. Her interpretation was: if the Ku Klux Klan demanded not to work with Black people, that this would be accommodated.


Although my daughter was at pains to explain that this is not comparable, the neighbour would not hear of it.


It is unlikely that this woman will see this column but nevertheless it is important to point out that the history of the KKK and its beliefs, although in some cases were put forward under dubious Christian interpretations, is one of abhorrent cruelty towards Black people.


It is important to point out that the York U decision was based primarily on the fact that the conditions of enrolment in the course did not specify in-class participation. It was offered as an online course with no indication of in-class participation. The student therefore sought the accommodation because, in principle, the conditions for enrolment had changed. As the Provost for York U pointed out in an interview on CBC’s Metro Morning, the accommodation was granted based on that condition change, not so much for his religious belief.


My interpretation here is that the request, even without citing the religious angle, would have had to be honoured because the student had a reasonable belief that he would not have to be involved in an in-class activity – it was an online course.


The Charter of Rights, the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Multiculturalism Act provide all the arguments and support for accommodation. There are limitations. “As long as they do not impinge on the rights of others”, or words to that effect, is one of the guiding principles. So, while we do advocate for the freedom of religion, it does not necessarily mean we have to accept all the standard behaviours or practices that are observed by that religion.


Gender-segregated schools are still allowed.


There is, and I’ve addressed this before, an inherent arrogant belief, primarily among the White western world, that it has the corner on what is right. Black people have adopted some of these traditions and beliefs, partly through our relationship with the church and its interpretation of morality, and partly because we have accepted the western standards of what is appropriate or what is beautiful.


This discussion is not very far from what is happening in Quebec. Essentially, the Quebec government wants to place limitations on the religious freedoms, specifically in dress and other external demonstrations of religious beliefs.


There have been debates about Sikhs carrying kirpans, Muslim women and the right to wear the hijab, burqa or niqab, and other religious-related issues. Accommodations have been made or compromises reached.


The United States is fond of using the concept of its union as an ongoing experiment. In many ways, Canada emulates that belief particularly with multiculturalism. There will be ongoing challenges to the idea and our belief systems will have to adjust to accommodate the outcomes of those challenges.


So, was the York U decision appropriate? I believe that it was based solely on the nature of the conditions outlined at the beginning of the course. There is a part of me which suspects that somewhere down the road, we may expect a similar challenge with respect to gays, Black people or women.


The Provost at York U, without spelling it out, seems to suspect that this will come as well. She indicated that she will be consulting other universities and the Human Rights Commission, one assumes, to ensure that the policy on religious accommodations is clearly articulated.


But the review of this policy should not be limited just to universities. All large institutions and employers should be looking carefully at this. Indeed, I would not be surprised if the Ontario Human Rights Commission develops a policy paper or issues a statement of clarification on this in the very near future.

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