Here are the three things you need to know about last week's teapot-scale tempest at Toronto's York University:
It is not unreasonable for a university student to ask a professor to accommodate his or her religious beliefs; it is not a slippery slope for a university to consider that request; and contrary to the suggestion of the federal Justice Minister, Peter MacKay, it is not akin to siding with the Taliban for the university to entertain the request and, sometimes, even accommodate it.
The student in question, who has not been identified for privacy reasons, asked the professor of an online course for permission to skip a group assignment because, he said, his religious beliefs don't allow him to meet with women in public. The professor refused, believing the request to be unreasonable. York officials overruled the professor, arguing that students in online courses have some expectation of being able to skip group assignments if they live overseas or have another valid reason. A firmly held religious belief can, in some cases, be a valid reason for making an exception, so long as it doesn't harm or interefere with others, or undermine values such as racial and sexual equality.
What has been overlooked to some degree is the fact that, when the student was initially turned down, he accepted the decision and agreed to attend the online course's group session. York officials were right to reconsider the student's request after the professor's refusal. Their decision to accommodate him, on the grounds that the course is online, is not something we support, but it's not inherently objectionable – especially because the school implied it would not have made the same decision if the request had come from a student taking a regular, in-class course. This is a hard case, on which reasonable people can and do disagree. What cannot be in dispute is this: York's decision is not a slippery slope leading to segregated classrooms.
The reasonable accommodation of various religious beliefs in Canadian society is an effort that takes thought and judgment. Even if the outcome is disputed, everyone involved at least made an effort to understand. Everyone, that is, except Mr. MacKay, who distorted the issue when he condemned the university, saying, "we did not send soldiers to Afghanistan to protect the rights of women to only see those same rights eroded here at home."
Canada's values are not eroded by honest attempts to accommodate religious beliefs. Suggesting otherwise, and linking the university's decision to the practices of a brutal Islamic theocracy, is the corrosive act. This is the same black-and-white thinking that has led to Quebec's odious Charter of Values, which, if adopted, will ban government employees from wearing religious symbols such as crosses, yarmulkes, hijabs, niqabs and turbans. Hysteria can make for successful politics, but it makes a very poor counsellor.