“Women’s rights or religious rights: which come first?”
What began as a University Affairs opinion piece directed toward an academic audience is now a hot news item around the world. Clearly, York University sociologist Paul Grayson’s decision to decline a male student’s request to not work in a study group with women has hit a sensitive nerve with the Canadian public. In the larger conversation this has sparked, commentators are framing this issue as “gender rights take priority over religion.” For example, in his January 16 piece for the Globe and Mail, Dr. Grayson argues for “secular human rights for everyone ahead of parochial religious rights.”
This argument – far from the only one of its kind – forgets that there are no “parochial religious rights.” The right to religious freedom is part of both the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (s. 2[a]) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Consequently, this is not so much a matter of “women’s rights” versus “religious rights,” as much of the general discussion suggests, but a larger matter of reconciling competing rights. After all, the right to freedom of religion and conscience is a human right, too!
In Canada, no right is absolute, and no right automatically trumps another. This is significant because much of this debate has boiled down to “gender rights take priority over religion.” Many argue that gender equality rights should always outrank religious rights, if and when the two come into conflict. However, Canadian courts have ruled that each case of conflicting rights claims must be judged on its own merits.
Dr. Grayson’s comment also highlights a secondary problem in this discourse: the common misunderstandings around what “secularism” means in Canada. The concept of secularism is itself deeply embedded in a Christian worldview. Put simply, Christianity’s division of the “sacred” and “profane” worlds (which evolved into “sacred” and “secular”) is not a conceptual framework that most of the world’s religions employ. While “secular/profane” used to have a negative connotation, this changed in the 20th century for many Europeans and North Americans. Secular became a hallmark of modernization, and religion became associated with irrational and oppressive practices. Likewise, most Canadians decided that religious beliefs and practices – since they were separable from the secular sphere – were best suited for private life. Therefore, whenever a Canadian says that religion has no place in a secular institution, they are in fact giving primacy to a culturally Christian worldview, around which this country built its institutions.
Many people also express concern that this is a slippery slope where religious freedoms negate other constitutional rights and ultimately lead to women becoming second-class citizens. This is precisely why competing rights must constantly be negotiated on an individual case basis. It provides a series of checks and balances that are regularly scrutinized. If people are so committed to protecting the rights of women, what about women who request accommodation for religious needs? Why are we so committed to protecting her right to gender equality but not her right to accommodation of a religious need? Women too have the inalienable right to freedom of religion and conscience.
The public response smacks of paternalism. Interestingly, in Dr. Grayson’s poll of his class, more women (52 percent) than men (20 percent) said that they would allow for the accommodation – a point often overlooked in the discussion to date. This is consistent with similar studies that investigate Canadians’ general feelings about gendered religious behaviour, such as wearing Muslim hijabs. What does it say about a lasting patriarchy that such practices seem to bother men significantly more than women?
Fears of condoning sexism trigger questions about “preferences” becoming “rights,” and decisions about what is “reasonable.” Those who support the “slippery slope” argument say that accommodating this student would lead to discrimination of any kind being justified when it involves someone with a sincerely held belief. Under the current system, this is patently not possible. It is important to know that where meeting a request for an accommodation based on religious belief causes harm, is based on hatred, or impacts others, the law sets down tests to determine how and to what extent the right to accommodation may need to be limited. In Canada, no one has the authority to decide what religions or their adherents should or should not believe (including authority figures within a tradition) – a right enshrined in our Charter. The onus is on the party limiting the religious freedom to prove it is necessary. This prevents courts and public organizations having to determine the “reasonableness” of practices connected to beliefs, such as the possibility of prophets, revelation, atonement, etc.
In an increasingly multicultural and multi-faith Canada, it is essential the educators at our institutions of higher learning understand the broader issues and implications of such accommodation requests. Anti-discrimination laws exist to ensure equal access to public services. Universities must protect gender rights and promote gender equality. They must also ensure that religious people – just like women, people with disabilities, racial or sexual minorities, etc. – may access such services with their identities intact. In other words, they must negotiate competing rights in their classrooms and on their campuses, rather than assuming that religious rights are parochial while gender rights are universal.
Laura Stemp-Morlock is studying religious diversity, gender and religion in public space in North America in the religious studies PhD program at the University of Waterloo.