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Women’s rights or religious rights: which come first?

A professor believes his university is offering too much religious accommodation.


A recent development in the arts faculty of a large Canadian university can be seen as a pivotal case of human rights and academic freedom. Some people, though, might see the incident as an example of appropriate religious accommodation blown out of proportion by an academic department, and that it serves to show how little power a university administration has in setting the policy of a university.

University Affairs is writing about the case because we think the principles are important. At a secular, public university, how much accommodation is appropriate for religious reasons? Who gets to decide what is appropriate? And do religious rights trump gender rights, when they are in conflict?

The professor involved wrote UA in late December, and provided a great deal of documentation about this case. Early this academic year, the professor had an unusual request from one of his male students. For religious reasons, the student asked to be excused from a required group assignment so that he wouldn’t have to publicly interact with female students. Complicating matters, the course is given online, and students who take the course from other locations, especially other countries, aren’t required to take part in the group assignment.

The professor’s reaction was that he taught at a public and secular university that had a commitment to equality. He felt that to grant the accommodation would give tacit support to a negative view of women. But, he believed the principled statement to that effect should come from the university, rather than from a professor. So he forwarded the request to both the dean of arts and the human rights office.

The person assigned by the dean to reply said that the professor should comply with the student’s request, since similar accommodations were made for students who couldn’t take part due to their distance from the university. The reply from the human rights office, although more nuanced, was largely consistent with that of the administration. In neither case was a distinction made between accommodations based on the geographic inability of a student to interact with others in the class and accommodations based on a student’s preference not to engage with his female classmates. Both situations were treated as equal.

From the professor’s viewpoint, this was a question of discrimination, not religious freedom. “Can I assume that a similar logic would apply if the group with which he did not want to interact was comprised of Blacks, Moslems or homosexuals?” he asked the dean. He also said that it wasn’t fair to the female students in the class, “who could expect to interact with other students independent of their sex, sexual orientation, religion, race and so on.”

The dean’s office saw the principles differently. In their view, these were: (1) sincerity of the student’s beliefs, which had to be taken as granted; (2) accommodation should in no way interfere with the experience of other students in the class; and (3) academic integrity of the course should be intact. The professor then raised the issue of accommodation at his departmental meeting. There was general agreement that excusing a male student from interacting with females was inconsistent with the secular rights of women. A motion was passed without dissent:

“Whereas it is recognized that [the University] recognizes diversity, be it resolved that academic accommodations for students will not be made if they contribute to material or symbolic marginalizations of other students, faculty or teaching assistants.”

On the basis of that motion, the professor informed the student in writing that the accommodation was denied.

The professor also sought expert opinion on the possible religious justification for the accommodation. Based on the student’s name, he asked one Judaic and two Islamic scholars whether the request would be legitimate in their religions, and all scholars gave written answers concluding that accommodation wasn’t required.

In the end, the student said that he would respect the professor’s decision, and thanked him for how he had handled the request. “I cannot expect that everything will perfectly suit what I would consider an ideal situation,” he wrote. For the professor, this was a further indication that the request was handled properly and that accommodation wasn’t “a religious essential” but perhaps “a ‘nice to have’.”

After being informed of this, a senior administrator said that these developments didn’t materially affect the university’s obligation to accommodate and he continued to insist that the professor accommodate (which the professor refused to do, thereby leaving himself open to disciplinary measures). Moreover, it was the administrator’s view that the non-participation of one male wouldn’t have a “substantial impact” on any other student’s rights.

Likely females in the class would have disagreed. In a survey conducted in another course, the professor presented students with a comparable scenario and asked for comment. Many female students were outraged. For example, one wrote that “many people believe that their religion legitimizes discrimination based on gender, race, class, sexual orientation, etc. Would the right to manifest religion in practice always come before the right to gender equality?” The student concluded her comment with the question: “what if a male student asked that the women be seated at the back of the class or on the other side of a partition?” Based on the three principles articulated by the dean’s office, the professor says that these requests might be seen as legitimate.

The male student has participated in the assignment, but the larger issue remains unresolved, and the administration continues to insist on accommodation. In the end, it seems to have morphed into an issue of academic governance. The professor argues that the university’s judgment should be reversed. “Rather than leaving a determination of whether or not an accommodation infringes the rights of others to the administration, a decision could be made by a committee comprised of a cross-section of the professoriate. A precedent for this type of decision-making is provided by the research ethics committee.”

There are several issues tangled in this case, but, like the professor, I think it is a situation that warrants airing in the academy. What do you think? University Affairs is eager to start a respectful discussion about the issues of this case.

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  1. Gavin Moodie / January 8, 2014 at 10:14 am

    I don’t know whether this is off topic, but the peak UK universities body had to withdraw its guidance on external speakers in higher education institutions because of the opposition it generated by contemplating acceding to external organizations’ requests that audiences be segregated by sex.

  2. Louise Fish / January 8, 2014 at 11:37 am

    It seems to me that gender is a biological imperative whereas religion is a human construct. It takes extreme surgical measures to re-allocate gender, but people can freely choose their religion. Accordingly, gender and other permanent characteristics (race, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation) should always trump religion as a human right.

  3. Natalie Waters / January 8, 2014 at 11:38 am

    This exemplifies the fight women still have to obtain equal rights. Too often Human Rights abuses against a women are downplayed. Would the response have been the same if he did not want to work with Jews? If a person’s beliefs – and I underline beliefs, I cannot change my gender, but one can change their beliefs – does not allow them to interact with the other 50% of the population in a society that values equality, well then that belief is discriminatory and cannot be tolerated, or accommodated. Discriminating against another group of people (black, Queen, women…) is NOT “accomodation”.

  4. Sidd Paul / January 8, 2014 at 11:39 am

    I don’t think that it would be fair to provide the mail student with what he was asking for. When you go to school in a setting like this, you should know from the very beginning what you have to do here. If you can’t agree with those, why don’t you enroll in a special school in Canada or in some other countries where they teach only male students? Asking any special facility like this means that you are ignoring equal rights of people. Born and raised in a religiously biased country, I know how detrimental these people could be for females!

  5. Jane Butler / January 8, 2014 at 11:42 am

    This is a great article, it really gets at the issue and the current tendency to pander to sexists in the name of religious freedom. I particularly like the fact that the article – and the professor – are considering the impact of these religious accommodations on the women in the class. I find this is often forgotten.

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