Freedom of religion, thought and conscience are cornerstone Canadian liberties, enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and given life by a long history preceding it. The Charter, and Canada's federal and provincial human rights codes, also recognize a duty on the part of public institutions and private employers to make reasonable accommodations for differences, including religious differences. But what is a "reasonable" accommodation? How do we draw the line – and where?
The country is seized by two controversies right now: Quebec's much-criticized values charter, legislative hearings into which began this week, and York University's decision to allow a student to be exempted from a group project, due to his religious qualms about being in the same room as members of the opposite sex.
To understand how to judge these two cases, and how they fit into the history of the progress of rights in Canada, it helps to take a step back. Way back.
In 1807, Ezekiel Hart was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada, the future province of Quebec. Hart won a majority of the votes, and was otherwise entitled to serve as his riding's representative, except for one problem: He was Jewish. Before assuming office, he was required to take a Christian oath, on a Christian Bible. Since he was unable to properly execute the oath, the assembly refused to seat him. A quarter-century later, the parliament of Lower Canada reversed that decision, passing a ground-breaking law granting equal rights to Jewish citizens, a first in the British Empire. This was a step along the road to where we are today, namely a country where people of all faiths and none are at liberty to profess and practise their beliefs, and where one's chosen faith has no impact on civil rights.
The Hart case seems absurd to modern readers. After all, shouldn't Hart's religious beliefs have been his own business? A law demanding that he reject them if he wished to hold a public office – that he choose between his religion and his job – sounds almost incomprehensible. Yet, two centuries on, that's what the Parti Québécois' charter of values is proposing.
Quebec's values charter seeks to solve no real problem, save that of the flagging popularity of the party that proposed it. It takes a giant step backward from a history of increasing religious toleration and accommodation. The law would, among other things, prevent hospital doctors and nurses from wearing a Jewish kippah, a Sikh turban or a Muslim hijab. Montreal's Jewish General Hospital says it will not be allowed to offer kosher meals. The law unreasonably asks people to choose between their livelihood and their faith, in instances where their expressions of faith are not in any way interfering with anyone else's rights or liberties.
Canada is a liberal society. It is built on a principle of not imposing the majority's religious or anti-religious beliefs on minorities. The Quebec values charter proposes rolling that back. It reverses a centutry of progress, and creates a new regime of unreasonable non-accommodation. Opponents of the bill are simply asking the government to do nothing, and leave people be. That's the liberal thing to do. It requires no accommodation at all.
But what happens when a citizen wants more than just to be let alone, and instead asks the law to step in and actively accommodate his beliefs?
That's the case at York University. A student in an online course asked his professor if he could miss an in-class assignment because, he said, his religious views did not allow him to be in a public place with women. The professor refused. The university administration overturned that decision, and ruled the student's beliefs should be accommodated, allowing him to skip the in-person meeting.
Under Canadian law, public institutions and employers have a duty to accommodate difference. That could mean accommodating a disability, for example. It also covers religion. At a university, there are many requests, like a student asking to have an exam reschedueled for a religious holiday, that can be considered and sometimes addressed without harming or disadvantaging other students, or undermining values of gender and racial non-discrimination. That has to be the key test.
So what about a student asking to be segregated from fellow students? That crosses a line.
The York case was unusual, in that the course was online, in-person meetings were rare, and some students were allowed to miss them for non-religious reasons. We disagree with the university decision, but it isn't a slippery slope to gender-segregated university classrooms. That just isn't on the menu. Freedom means the right to privately practice a religion, and to publicly profess it. But the right extends only so far as it does not impose those beliefs on others or on institutions. A student asking for the classroom to be curtained off, to separate him from members of another sex, race or religion should not be granted his wish, and will not be.