Lessons from a Controversy

lessons-learnedIt has been a while since I last blogged due to a variety of reasons. But nothing like a little controversy to stir up the blogging urge!

Last week, news broke all through the Canadian media of a religious accommodation request at York University, where I serve as a campus minister, which violates women’s rights.

Here’s the story: In an online sociology course, a student requested to be exempted from a group assignment, the only in person assignment, because his religious beliefs prevent him from interacting with women, who make up the majority of the course students. The professor, Dr. Grayson, after consulting with religious scholars, and his own department, denied the student’s request with a written explanation. The student accepted the decision and complied.

However, the controversy ensued when the York administrators cited legal obligations under the Ontario Human Rights Code for religious accommodation and overturned Grayson’s decision. Grayson is resisting as he believes this religious accommodation makes him an “accessory to sexism.” The full story can be read here.

The news was everywhere. Online bloggers, social media and even politicians weighed in on the matter. Political cartoonists were even poking fun at the poor York administrators, who probably did not deserve this. Administrators always have to worry about legalities, rules and policies in ways that an instructor might not have to.

I find plenty of lessons to garner from this issue for Christians.

Beyond Rights to Shalom

This controversy has sparked a human rights debate. The discussions have focused around religious rights versus women’s or human rights. The consensus seems to be that human rights should trump religious rights whenever they conflict, as they do in this case. It’s a win-lose either-or scenario.

I wrote a post for the Think Christian blog on this topic. You can find Think Christian here.

In that post, I wrote about how as Christians, we draw on deeper ethical resources than simply the human rights framework. And I am trying to suggest that we draw from the Bible’s emphasis on mutual love and responsibility and the concept of shalom to go beyond or deeper than the conflict of rights.

To be clear, I am not advocating that we replace or rid ourselves of the language of human rights. On the contrary, I am asking that as Christians, we need to contextualize human rights language within the bigger biblical framework of shalom and loving your neighbor.

You can read the entire post here: “When Religion Gets in the Way of Shalom”.

Overly Legalistic Interpretations?

I wonder if part of the problem here is rooted in overly legalistic interpretations. In the student’s case, did he interpret his religious beliefs in an overly narrow sense? I find it hard, for instance, to see how any religion would totally forbid any public interaction with women. Even Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Muslims are not that strict. There are plenty of both religious groups attending classes at York daily and they interact with people of the opposite sex. They do avoid physical contact between the sexes, unless they are close family relations. And yes, their religious gatherings are segregated. But other than that, they do mingle in public. So, has this student truly understood the spirit of his religious beliefs instead of fixating on the letter of the law? Has he caused his own problem, in this instance, with his narrow interpretation, rather than his religion per se?

We would probably never know because the instructor is not allowed to ask what religion it is, nor be able to help the student in that regard. However, I wonder if it is possible for the instructor to ask the student to clarify and explain further his request. That would have been my first instinct if I were the instructor. I would have asked the student to clarify what he means when he says he cannot publicly interact with women. Because, unless he lives as a hermit and never venture forth into public in Canada, he would have to encounter or interact with women at some point – at the gas station, at the library, at the grocery store, at the bank, etc. I find it hard to believe then that his request is that legally constricting as “no interaction in public whatsoever”. I would have asked him to clarify so I can better see how I might or might not accommodate his religious beliefs. It might very well be that it is more nuanced – probably certain kinds of settings, or certain proximities, or certain numbers of people required, or avoidance of physical contact, etc. By not asking for further clarifications, have the professor here interpreted the student’s request in an overly literal and legalistic fashion? I have not found any media reports that the professor had sought clarification of this nature.

I also wonder if the York administrators have interpreted the Ontario Human Rights Code in an overly legalist fashion too. Surely the right to religious accommodation can be negotiated and nuanced, especially in light of potential harm or infringing on other established rights. Does the Code actually force their hand into accommodating this request?

Can Christians learn a lesson here? Yes! Overly legalistic and literal interpretations of scripture can cause more problems than they solve.

Humility, Kindness and Justice

I think Dr. Grayson handled the student’s request as well as he could, given the privacy law constraints. Not knowing Grayson’s own religious background, what I find in his overall actions in this matter are applications of the virtues commanded in Micah 6:8 – “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Justice here is not simply giving what’s due to the male student but also what is due for the female students in his course. I think Grayson is right to worry about the wider implications of the student’s request as potential sexism, as well as the possible ramifications of precedence for other forms of discriminating requests.

I do not know Grayson’s own religious sympathies or perhaps he has none. But he showed kindness to the student’s religious beliefs even though he clearly did not share them. He never, as far as I can tell, condemned or mocked the student’s religious beliefs, but censured the behavior or the request. Unlike so many other commentators who were quick to judge and condemn the student’s character – with many Islamophobic sentiments as well – Grayson actually complimented the student for being reasonable and accommodating.

Finally, he displayed humility in that he consulted with others rather than simply rely on his own wits, even though, as a senior professor with many years of teaching experience, he could have simply relied on himself. But he consulted with a Jewish scholar and a Muslim scholar. He also consulted with his sociology colleagues, and, of course, the administration. He even did a little experiment by posing the scenario to another class he was teaching. In essence, he was also consulting students. This, to me, is a display of humility in continual learning from others and seeking advice or input from others.

May we Christians learn from this as an example of applying Micah 6:8 in a pluralistic context when rights clash with beliefs.

2 thoughts on “Lessons from a Controversy

  1. Europe is not Afganistan. Canada is not Saudi-Arabia.

    2 Corinthians 3:17
    Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

    Galatians 5:13
    You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.



    1. Thanks for your comment. But we must be careful here.
      You are assuming, like many others, that the student is Muslim. We currently do not know. Humility also means not jumping to conclusions and not stereotyping others.


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