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Canada: York University standing by choice to excuse student from group work with women over religious beliefs

Saturday 11 January 2014, by siawi3


Tristin Hopper

National Post, Toronto, January 9, 2014 8:07 PM ET

York University appears to be standing by its controversial decision to permit a student to be excused from a group project because the presence of women interfered with his “firm religious beliefs.â€

In a statement Thursday by provost Rhonda Lenton, the university affirmed its commitment to “gender equity, inclusivity and diversity,†but did not retract an October order authorizing the much-criticized “religious accommodation.â€

The statement comes one day after York University sociology professor J. Paul Grayson went public with documents showing that university brass had backed a request from one of his students to be separated from female classmates for religious reasons.

“Seventy per cent of the students at York University are female,†Mr. Grayson told the National Post. “This kind of situation, from that point of view, is simply intolerable."

The “unusual†request arose on Sept. 20, when a student in one of Mr. Grayson’s online courses asked to be exempted from a group project because he did not believe in “intermingling between men and women.â€

Although the professor’s impulse was to reject the request on the grounds that it would make him an “accessory to sexism,†he forwarded it to both the Dean of his faculty and the university’s Centre for Human Rights, intending to respond with a “principled statement from the university.â€

Instead, both sources instructed him to “accommodate†the student’s wishes.

A reply from the Vice Dean argued that the “academic integrity†of the course could be compromised if Mr. Grayson did not respect the “sincerity of the student’s beliefs.â€

In Thursday’s statement, Ms. Lenton said that a “deciding factor†in the case was the fact that Mr. Grayson had given another student the opportunity to “complete the course requirement off-campus.â€

Speaking to the National Post, Mr. Grayson explained that the other student was given a pass because he was out of the country.

Mr. Grayson ultimately ignored university brass and, together with his departmental colleagues, passed a resolution stating that “accommodations for students will not be made if they contribute to material or symbolic marginalizations of other students, faculty or teaching assistants.â€

The student withdrew his request, writing to the professor that “I will respect the final decision, and do my best to accommodate it.â€

The student never revealed his religion, although Mr. Grayson guessed it was either Islam or Orthodox Judaism. The professor said he ran the initial request past scholars for both religions, all of whom supported his response.

Nevertheless, in an Oct. 18 letter, Martin Singer, Dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies, wrote to the professor demanding that he “respect the faculty’s legal obligation to accommodate the religious practice of X.â€

As Mr. Grayson noted on Wednesday, the “order†has not been rescinded.

In Thursday’s statement, the university noted only that “a satisfactory agreement was reached between the professor and the student.â€

The administration’s position found no support among federal MPs asked about the controversy Tuesday.

“This is what we’ve tried to combat in places like Afghanistan,†Justice Minister Peter MacKay said in an interview.

“Building schools there, and ensuring now that millions of girls are able to attend school alongside boys, I believe, is a very positive accomplishment of our country.â€

Added NDP Leader Tom Mulcair: “I don’t think a university should be accommodating such a demand.â€

Parliamentarians with ridings in the vicinity of York also weighed in.

“It’s nothing short of ridiculous,†Liberal MP Judy Sgro said of the student’s request. “We live in a country seeking gender equality…. This is Canada, pure and simple.â€

Conservative MP Mark Adler said in an email that the school “needs to realize that this kind of sexism has no place in Canadian society.â€