A York University student’s request to be excused from course work, on the grounds that his religion prevents him from interacting with women, has sparked a human rights debate over how universities should navigate between religious accommodation and human rights. I understand the concerns being raised and want to assure you that York University remains fully committed to creating an inclusive learning environment for all our students.
This specific situation is complex because two separate issues became intertwined: 1) the student request for religious accommodation; and 2) the challenge associated with requiring a student who had signed up for an online course to attend a class session on campus.
The religious accommodation would not have been recommended had this course been taught on campus. As indicated in the President’s statement to the York community religious accommodation cannot be granted at the expense of gender rights.
There was however a second issue regarding whether a student could or should be compelled to attend campus to complete an assignment for a course that had been advertised as an online course. When students register for their courses we do not require them to state their reasons for choosing one type of course over the other. We may disagree with the rationale that underpinned this student’s decision to sign up for online courses in the first place, but the University has a responsibility to be consistent with a previous accommodation that was made for another student who was allowed to complete the assignment off campus for other reasons. Being allowed to complete the assignment off campus would not have excused the student from working with female students online. As it turned out, the professor and the student satisfactorily resolved the matter on their own without the need for any accommodation.
This case has raised important societal questions that warrant further discussion. York is not unique in trying to address requests for religious accommodation by students in Ontario universities and colleges. Each case is assessed taking all facts into consideration within the context of the Ontario Human Rights Code. We are pleased that the Ontario Human Rights Commission is currently engaged in a review of the Code and York will be an active participant in that process.
We sincerely regret the message that this case may have sent out to the community. York is recognized as a world-class institution with leading professors who are committed to creating an engaged learning experience for all of our students through research and teaching innovation, and we will continue to defend the principle of equality for all students, and that includes protecting equal rights for men and women.
Vice-President Academic & Provost