J Paul Grayson, a sociology professor at York University in Toronto, received a request from a male student asking to be excused from participating in a group assignment, in which the student would have been obliged to converse with female students.

Grayson said no to the student but decided to use his request to test York University’s administration—beginning with his Dean—to see how they would deal with it. The administrators in fact decided that since no rights of female students were being withheld, the student’s request could be accommodated.

At that point, Grayson seized the opportunity that the administration’s response afforded him and leaked the details of this case to the media, dragging half of Canada into a proverbial tempest in a teapot that centered on the looming supposed dangers of religious accommodation.

The Quebec government—which is in the throes of proposing legislation intended to prevent people who wear religiously significant clothing from working in the public sector—was absolutely delighted. As reported by Toronto’s Globe and Mail , Grayson had already tipped off secularists when he came out in support of Quebec’s so-called Charter of Values. An affront to religious freedom , this Charter is designed to bully minorities, and especially Muslim immigrants, into assimilation in Canada’s mostly French-speaking, largely lapsed Catholic province.

What to make of this bewildering feeding frenzy? Three things, to start with.

First, focusing only on the particular legal dimensions of this particular request for accommodation, this adroit analysis by Cardus’ Albertos Polizogopoulos claims that York’s administration was actually correct to recommend granting it. Polizogopoulos states:

We may not agree with the beliefs that underlie this student’s request, but his requested means of accommodation does not violate anyone else’s rights. . . . Men and women have the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of their sex, but there’s no right for men or women to be in a study group with students who may not want to be in a group with people of the opposite sex. There is no legal balancing of rights necessary in this case because there are no competing rights in this case. If the student had asked for female students to be excluded from the classes he participated in, that would be a case of competing rights. In the balancing of rights in that scenario, request denied!

He adds that sincerity of belief is the legally established criterion on which such accommodations can and should be made. Again, that’s not a sociological or theological criterion (i.e. not mine or anyone else’s), but it’s the legal one in Canada:

In law, so long as the religious belief is sincere, it doesn’t matter whether it’s shared by all or most other people subscribing to a specific faith system. At least that is the opinion the Supreme Court of Canada has expressed on several occasions.

Does this mean that accommodations like the one requested by the male student be granted however? I say: No. Why? Because, as a Jewish journalist has observed , the questions of sincerity and credibility are central to the university’s mission. And, besides, this issue is not primarily a legal issue, it is a pedagogical one and it should never have gained the attention of lawyers.

Hence, point two: Was the request for accommodation actually made in such a way that the Dean had to be involved? Again, no. The student withdrew his request when Grayson initially said no, something that Cardus’ Peter Stockland has dissected in his inimitable way .

Up until this point, Grayson did the right and honorable thing and just said no— and, the student did the right thing by withdrawing his silly request. What happened after common sense prevailed is where things get silly and cunning at the same time.

Grayson doesn’t get religion or like religion. How do we know this? Well, after saying no to the student, he turned what could have been a mere blip in any professor’s day into malice aforethought. According to him, if this student were to be accommodated, it would set off a chain reaction. Religion might deploy all manner of sexist and racist social practices that would overwhelm us like a tsunami . . . you see. The quote he gave for the Globe and Mail reporter is a real sendup:

“You have to nip this in the bud, because what you’re dealing with here is a basic hornet’s nest,” Dr. Grayson said in an interview. “What if . . . I said, well, my religion really frowns upon my interacting with blacks?”

You know. All those racist religions out there waiting in the wings.

Grayson followed with his own op-ed , where he reports on the support he has received from various people:

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.

You see where this is going, right? Rights are not simply rights. Instead, human rights are “secular.” Religious rights (which we want to remind Grayson are deemed fundamental in section two of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms) are deemed by him “parochial.”

This is astonishing bigotry. By baptizing the concept of human rights with the moniker of “secular,” Grayson inverts the history in which human rights actually developed on the basis of the Judeo-Christian belief in the dignity and value of each human being. You don’t need as straightforward a narrative as Rodney Stark’s to see that Grayson’s reading of history is tendentious.

But Grayson isn’t finished yet. In his op-ed, the segregation of males and females anywhere and everywhere must be thwarted. He observes, “In some publicly funded swimming pools, boys are separated from girls for religious reasons.”

Well, civilization is over then isn’t it? But Grayson has conveniently overlooked one teeny weeny fact in his swimming pool example hasn’t he?

Typically, it’s the women who want to swim without men around for reasons that should be so obvious as to not merit mention. I’ve spoken with young Muslim female university students here in Montreal who have had a terrible time trying to be excused from high school class trips to swimming pools and beaches. They see clear as a bell the problem of what those excursions entail for young women in a highly sexualized culture. But in Grayson’s world, the toleration of segregation along gender lines would be to aid and abet sexism, even if it’s the women who seek it! He tries to hide his lack of insight by imagining the worst and tying it to the conceivable. In his mind, segregation of the sexes can only result in the consequence that: “Boys might mistakenly assume they are superior to girls.”

To which we can confidently respond: Well, some boys might believe in this idea, but not as an effect of segregation. Not per se. There’s no proof whatsoever. Belief in the superiority of one’s sex surely depends on many factors. You’d think this would be something a sociologist would want to allow for, to say the least.

I myself would be surprised if it could be empirically demonstrated that boys who attend single-sex schools believe—in disproportionate numbers compared with boys who attend public/co-ed schools—that males are superior than females. In fact, my own anecdotal experience with teens who attend the many (private) sex segregated schools in Montreal reveals, if anything, that the reverse is probably true, so long as we define the equal regard for the opposite sex without ideological blinders.

If Grayson is concerned about sexism, he should pick up his sociological notepad and pen and go do a survey about what are the top five sexist practices that women find annoying, fearful or distressing. I’ll bet that one of the top five is lewd remarks about physical appearance in mixed company. But Grayson’s fear of segregation is based not on social science but on his irrational fear of religion.

And this is why the professor’s little media adventure is so disingenuous: After making the right decision, he tried to show that religion is the root of small evils—and big ones too. Any big ones you can imagine. Too bad he left common sense and rationality behind in the process of publicizing his vindictiveness, because whole segments of the Canadian elite took the cue and threw some mud at religion. Any excuse will do apparently.

Dr. Paul Allen, Associate Professor, Department of Theological Studies, Concordia University, Montreal.

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Articles by Paul Allen

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