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Ontario's rights code gone awry

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For the past week, York University has been widely criticized for the way it handled a male student's request for a religious accommodation so he would not be required to interact with female students in his class. I denied the request because it infringed upon women's right to be treated with respect and as equals. In the end, the student accepted my decision and completed the assignment with other students, including female ones.

Despite this resolution, the university continued to insist that the accommodation be granted. As a result, the public has soundly and justifiably criticized the university administration. Part of this criticism was expressed through the news media and in hundreds of emails to me, including ones in which parents thanked me for the position I took and vowed not to send their daughters to York.

I understand their concern. However, I doubt that other universities would have handled the situation differently. Parents might be misguided if they avoid York in the belief that their daughters would be better off in other schools.

In Ontario, all universities base their decisions on matters pertaining to religious accommodations on the province's Human Rights Code. So although politicians of all stripes disagreed, it's not surprising that the former chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission told the Globe and Mail he thought York had done the right thing in insisting on the accommodation. If York was doing the right thing, other institutions would have felt compelled to do the same.

But although human-rights bureaucrats may believe York did the right thing, many Canadians writing to me said the Human Rights Code does not yield acceptable outcomes. If situations like this one allow religious rights to trump gender rights, the code is out of touch with the values of Canadians of all faiths. As a result, it lacks credibility among a large segment of the population.

The people I'm talking about are not rednecks who believe Canada should be reserved for white, native-born Christians. They are native- and foreign-born Canadians of all faiths who put secular human rights for everyone ahead of parochial religious rights. Many reported experiences under regimes such as Iran's, which enforce strict religious codes. Indeed, some of the strongest support I received came from such individuals. They had seen first-hand the results of religious intrusion into all aspects of life.

It is also clear from reading these email accounts that the moral confusion that characterized the York administration's position is not confined to universities. Many pointed to the fact that in Ontario's publicly funded primary and secondary schools, examples can be found of situations in which code-sanctioned prayer meetings segregate boys from girls. In other instances, parents can request that their children not be required to sit beside or work with members of the opposite sex. In some publicly funded swimming pools, boys are separated from girls for religious reasons.

Such accommodations are likely to engender feelings of inferiority in girls. Conversely, boys might mistakenly assume they are superior to girls. Such accommodations also likely provide a bad example for other students. Seeing or hearing of gendered segregation in his school, an impressionable 12-year-old boy may come to believe separation between the sexes is acceptable. If some of his friends regard the girls in the prayer room as unworthy, he may come to view them the same way. Given these conditions, it would not be surprising to discover that once they got to university, some of these students would think it legitimate to request accommodations to avoid working with their female peers. Their previous education had taught them that if you asked for a religious accommodation, you got it.

There is evidence from my emails that in Ontario, the rights of female students are suffering from religious compromise at all levels of education. Unfortunately, we do not know the full dimensions of this compromise, or its long-term effects on female students, on their male peers and, ultimately, on the value structure of our society.

For these reasons, we need an impartial provincial inquiry into these matters. On the basis of its findings, it might be possible to get the Human Rights Code back on track and more relevant to Ontarians of all faiths concerned with their daughters' education and future.

J. Paul Grayson is professor of sociology at York University.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 17, 2014 A9

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