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Whose rights injured?

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It's a sad day when the leaders of a distinguished university display an inability for critical thinking. But there's no more polite way to describe the intellectual shallowness of senior academic officials at York University who defended a male student who claimed his religion prohibited "intermingling between men and women."

The student, whose religion was not disclosed, but who could be Muslim, Orthodox Jew or even Christian -- they all offer disputed interpretations on the role of women in society -- was taking an online course. His professor, however, required the class to participate in an in-person project.

The student eventually relented when the professor told him he would not tolerate behaviour that marginalized other students or faculty. The professor also consulted religious experts at the university who told him there was no religious justification for the student's demand.

So far, so good, no problem.

But then the higher thinkers of academia got involved. The dean and vice-dean of the faculty of arts said the professor had a legal obligation to accommodate the student's beliefs. The university's Centre for Human Rights also chimed in, saying the Ontario Human Rights Code required "accommodations based on religious requests."

These were gratuitous arguments since the professor and student had already resolved the matter, but they expose a toxic side in the debate over reasonable accommodation in Canada, namely the bland interpretation that everyone's special needs trump all other rights and considerations.

Reasonable accommodation is meant to level the field for the disabled, religious minorities or anyone with a special need. As such, it is a moving target, since deciding what is reasonable may depend on the unique circumstances of each case.

It does not mean the principle of gender equality -- which, by the way, Canada fought for in Afghanistan -- can be tossed aside at a publicly funded university whenever someone thinks it violates their religion.

Some values and rights are simply not up for negotiation.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 13, 2014 A8

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