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York University president Mamdouh Shoukri is shown at his office in Toronto on Sept 23, 2011.

PETER POWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

York University's president has waded into a controversy over the school's decision to approve a male student's request to avoid group work with female peers on religious grounds, looking to assuage public indignation and pivot the debate away from his campus.

In a written statement, president Mamdouh Shoukri stressed that York is committed to upholding Canada's pluralistic values. But he did not address the specifics of the student's request, instead calling for a broader discussion of "the complexities involved" with religious accommodation – an issue "that many people, myself included, feel passionately about."

The student's professor, J. Paul Grayson, sparked a national debate when he refused the request as sexist, even after university administrators overruled him and approved an exception. The university has maintained it was legally obliged do so, even as dean of arts Martin Singer expressed "sincere regret" that he saw no other option because a student enrolled from abroad was accommodated.

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The student who made the request, whose identity is protected by privacy rules, is taking an online sociology course, but Dr. Grayson required his students to meet in groups for an assignment. The student eventually accepted Dr. Grayson's objections and participated in his group.

"Religious accommodation cannot be implemented at the expense of the infringement of the rights of others. We must always safeguard rights such as gender equality, academic freedom and freedom of expression, which form the foundation of any secular post-secondary institution," Dr. Shoukri said.

Brad Duguid, Ontario's Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, said he respects the university's jurisdiction to make its own decision, but "my inclination would be to side with the views of the prof on this."

"It's my opinion that ... our universities should not be obliged to alter course curriculum in any way that would be seen as discriminatory with regard to gender equality," Mr. Duguid said, calling such equity a "sacrosanct" principle.

Mr. Duguid is the latest of several prominent politicians to disagree with the university, including federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay and Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair. But Raj Anand, a human rights lawyer and former chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, said the university's stand appears legally defensible, and that religious accommodation laws are designed to protect individuals against majority opinion.

"You don't decide human rights issues by polling," Mr. Anand said.

Dr. Grayson called Dr. Shoukri's statement "a step in the right direction," and perhaps, "a mea culpa." But he continues to insist York made the wrong decision, and is advocating policy change – and perhaps even a royal commission of inquiry – to clarify how competing rights, including those of women, will be safeguarded in public schools.

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