Religious freedom is one of a host of rights, like freedom of speech and freedom of association, that are protected as “Fundamental Freedoms” under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Like those rights, the neat ideal of religious freedom is frequently confronted with the messy reality of its implementation. The recent controversy at York University is a perfect case in point of this tension. The basic outline is well known; a professor of an online course received a request from a student asking to be exempted from a group project, claiming that his religious beliefs did not allow him to work together with women. After initially rejecting the request, the professor was compelled by his superiors in the university to reverse course and accommodate the request, triggering a national uproar. Owing to its place as a university with a notably diverse student body, it is worth looking at the policies McGill has in place for these sorts of situations.
What made the case at York University so disconcerting to observers—including the original professor, who characterized his reluctance to accommodate the request as not wanting to be an “accessory to sexism”—was the fact that carrying out the request required acceding to the wishes of an individual student to not interact with an entire demographic of other students. While the media controversy may have been inevitable, York University’s conduct on the matter was made worse by the clear institutional failure.
For one, from the start of this situation back in September, there was a lack of a unified front on the matter as conveyed to the student. After the student made the request to not complete a group assignment for an online course, the professor, according to a report in York University’s Excalibur, wanted to decline the request and looked to superiors in the university for a more formal response. Instead, the order to grant the request was made not because of any apparent doctrinal validity to the request, but because another student in the class had received accommodation on the grounds of living too far away to commute for campus.
What makes the decision to compel the professor to comply with the request even worse is that it was simply predicated on the granting of an accommodation to another student for wholly different and arguably unrelated reasons, thus showing considerable intellectual laziness in considering the optics of the decision.
Were such a situation to arise at McGill, it is imperative that all of the institutional actors be not only informed of the situation but engage in consultation as to a unified stance before responding to any such requests. Additionally, these issues should be handled in a more timely manner than displayed by York University; outside of the most frivolous requests, taking over a month to render a decision that has yet to be settled shows a lack of respect for the time and beliefs of the student in question.
McGill’s own policies on religious accommodation vary. For final exams in the centrally scheduled exam period, students have two weeks before any listed date on the calendar of holy days to raise conflicts. Situations such as the one at York, however, are far more complex.
McGill will soon give a presentation at the Quebec government’s hearings on Bill 60, also referred to as the Quebec Charter of Values, outlining the university’s opposition to the bill and its commitment to freedom of religious expression. Whatever the future of the charter, in implementing policies and practices on religious accommodation, the university would do well to remember the lessons of this debacle; at the intersection of issues of gender equality, religious accommodation, and access to education, care should be taken to ensure that not one of those three values is disregarded in the process of formulating solutions.