Bernard Drainville, the minister responsible for Quebec's controversial secular charter project, was quick to exploit the York University reasonable accommodation story, predicting that the need for such a charter will soon be felt throughout Canada.
J. Paul Grayson, the sociology professor who sensibly refused a student's request to be exempted from a seminar because he didn't want to mingle with female classmates, told a reporter from Le Devoir that he supports Quebec's plan to provide a framework for requests for accommodation and to ban religious signs in the public sector.
"There is a need for the same kind of initiatives that are debated in Quebec," he said. Prof. Grayson's decision was overturned by the university's hierarchy, an inept move that was widely condemned.
The York story and Prof. Grayson's uninformed comments about the charter provided fuel for Parti Québécois Premier Pauline Marois's government just in time for the parliamentary commission on the secular bill that began Tuesday. The PQ project triggered a stormy polemic last fall, and the hearings are expected to last for as long as two months, guaranteeing it's not about to end.
Unfortunately, Prof. Grayson's unconditional support for the Quebec charter only added more confusion to the debate.
This charter deals with reasonable accommodation, but its main and more controversial provision is the banning of religious symbols for civil servants, public-school and university teachers and health-care professionals – a plan that has nothing to do with the incident at York. Even if staff there had been denied the right to wear a kippah or a veil, it wouldn't have prevented Prof. Grayson's student from asking to be spared the company of women.
While the ban on religious symbols would constitute an unacceptable denial of a basic civil liberty protected by both the Canadian and the Quebec rights charters, it wouldn't stop religious zealots from seeking unreasonable privileges.
As for the requests for religious accommodation, the charter stipulates that they should be granted if they don't pose undue constraint on an institution, don't penalize other employees and don't violate the principle of gender equality. This last principle was ignored by York's administrators when they overruled Prof. Grayson's decision.
It goes without saying that universities and other institutions should add gender equality to the criteria they use to evaluate requests based on religion.
This was the usual practice in Quebec, years before the charter proposal. For instance, while requests for days off for religious holidays are often granted, those that rest on the refusal to interact with the other sex are generally refused.
Actually, there was no need for a secular charter to deal with reasonable accommodations. The Commission des droits de la personne du Québec, the province's own human-rights commission, which strongly condemned the ban on religious symbols, considers that the charter's provision about accommodation to be totally unnecessary, since the Charter of Rights and Freedoms already guarantees full protection against gender discrimination.
Despite a handful of spectacular cases that were disproportionally inflated by some populist media, Quebec's health services and school boards report practically no problems at the ground level. Just 3 per cent of the complaints received by the rights commission over a period of six years are related to religious accommodation. (Of those, the majority came from Jehovah's Witnesses.)
English Canada certainly doesn't need a secular charter. All it needs is administrators able to say no to unreasonable requests.