Why people of faith should be angry with York University

In September, a sociology student at Toronto’s York University emailed his professor with an unusual request: He asked to be exempt, on religious grounds, from attending the online course’s only in-person, student-led study session. It wasn’t group work that he said his faith forbade (a prohibition I imagine many of us would wholeheartedly endorse) but the act of merely existing in mixed company. In the student’s own words: “One of the main reasons I have chosen Internet courses to complete my B.A. is due to my firm religious beliefs . . . It will not be possible for me to meet in public with a group of women (the majority of my group) to complete some of these tasks.” J. Paul Grayson, the course’s professor, denied the student’s religious accommodation request. Faith-based rights should not undermine women’s rights, he argued.

Grayson’s dean, however, with the backing of York’s administration, disagreed. Martin Singer, York’s dean of arts, insisted that Grayson grant the student’s request for a woman-less semester because his quiet abstention from the class’s group work wouldn’t openly discriminate against his female peers. In other words, what York’s women didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them, so why not make the accommodation? Today, everybody in the country knows, and we aren’t hurt. We’re mad. From campus feminists to the likes of Conservative Justice Minister Peter MacKay, there is hardly a soul left in Canada who has not thrown shade at York’s administration—ever willing, apparently, to tolerate intolerance in the name of political correctness.

More maddening than its sexist kowtowing is the school’s hearty appetite for fictitious religious dogma. What’s gone practically unnoticed in this spirited debate about accommodation is the very thing that renders it moot. The religious proscription on which Grayson’s student based his accommodation request (thou shalt not be seen in public with women) may boil your blood, or make you want to renounce God almighty, but chances are it doesn’t exist. The boring truth is that neither Orthodox Judaism nor Islam, nor any noteworthy religion on the planet, forbids its adherents from meeting members of the opposite sex in public.

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A Muslim scholar wrote to the professor assuring him that physical encounters aside, “there is absolutely no justification for not interacting with females in public space.” Even those Orthodox Jews who observe the laws of shomer negiah, which forbid physical contact with the opposite sex, are not life-long agoraphobics. At the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto—a coed private Jewish high school a few blocks from my childhood home—students who observe the no-touch edict study alongside Jews as scripturally inclined as I am. A former student says that in her time there she saw many a flustered pubescent Orthodox boy throw up his arms in defeat and proclaim “Shomer negiah!” upon accidentally bumping into a secular female classmate. Some accommodation.

Unless Grayson’s assigned group activity was a dance number, his student’s request to abstain from meeting with female peers in public is about as divinely inspired as Jesus Christ Superstar. Yet York’s administration took it at face value. They didn’t bother requesting “that the student present evidence concerning the religious obligations involved,” as their accommodation policy allows them to do when instructor and student don’t meet eye to eye on an accommodation request. In fact, York’s religious accommodation policy is as outrageously flexible as my alma mater’s H1N1 prevention policy, which stipulated that if you so much as sneezed you could skip your scheduled exams sans sick note. (Telling a professor you were feeling under the weather was all it took to avoid campus responsibilities at Dalhousie University in 2010). I bet I could enrol at York tomorrow and request an exemption from all exams held in the cafeteria because its ham and cheese sandwiches offend my Semitic sensibilities.

There’s a big difference, though, between the schools’ overly flexible policies: Dalhousie’s H1N1 policy, albeit a godsend for opportunistic slackers, probably prevented a lot of people from getting sick; York’s timid policy of unreasonable accommodation makes people sick, not with an illness of the flesh but with paranoia. When institutions accommodate religious practices that don’t exist, when they equate ignorant compliance with cultural sensitivity, they spread poisonous untruths about the people they’re trying to protect. It’s not York’s female students who have greatest cause to be angry with the school for gladly accommodating a sexist request, but its people of faith. Clearly York doesn’t think very highly of them, not highly enough anyway, to check their deepest-held beliefs against those of an undergraduate smart-ass making up his religion as he goes along.

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