Has York University turned back the clock on gender equality?

"...I am not convinced that the level of criticism aimed at York University is entirely fair."

Has York University turned back the clock on gender equality?  Is the university’s decision to grant a male student an exemption from a group assignment that required him to work with female students a threat to the rights of women?

While I personally consider the student’s request offensive, I am not convinced that the level of criticism aimed at York University is entirely fair.

Sometime in September, a male student, enrolled in an on-line class, requested an exemption from an on-campus group assignment on the basis that his religious beliefs prevented him from intermingling with women. His professor denied the request and looked to the university for a “principled statement” in support of his decision. Instead, the university instructed him to accommodate the student. The professor refused to comply and the student completed the assignment without any further complaint. When the request came to light in January, public opinion quickly came down against the university; there is a consensus that with this exemption the university is condoning sexism.

The university explained that it approved the request not for religious reasons, but because the course was advertised as an on-line course, and there was not an expectation that students would have to attend on-campus sessions. Had the course been an on-campus course, the university would have denied the request.

It seems to me that the university was trying to correct a customer service problem: the course was not delivered in the manner in which it was marketed, and the university wanted to fix the problem.  One wonders, though, why the university did not issue a straightforward refusal of the request for religious accommodation, and then deal with the requirements for an on-line course as a separate matter.

The university’s explanation has had little effect on the public debate that has pitted religious accommodation against women’s rights. How far should a public institution go to accommodate an individual’s religious beliefs when those beliefs conflict with a societal value?  There is no easy answer, although it seems reasonable to me that a public institution would opt to resolve this type of conflict on the side of inclusivity.

While I think that the university made a misstep and ‘got it wrong,’ I also think that some of the criticism leveled at York has been overblown.  Emotional rhetoric, such as evidenced in Federal Justice Minister Peter Mackay’s comment, “…we did not send soldiers to Afghanistan to protect the rights of women to only see those same rights eroded here at home,” serves no purpose in helping Canadian society sort out the thorny issue of religious accommodation.

I was initially appalled that a public university would countenance this request. And while I have modified my reaction somewhat based on the university’s explanation, I still find the student’s request unpalatable. I shudder when anyone uses religion to marginalize women, or any other group of people, and I feel very strongly about gender equality. But, I disagree that given the reasons for this exemption, York University is eroding women’s rights in Canada or promoting sexism.

Trail resident, Louise McEwan is a freelance religion writer. Her blog is www.faithcolouredglasses.blogspot.com. Contact mcewan.lou@gmail.com .