When it Comes to Religious Accommodations in the Classroom, How Far is Too Far?

There’s an interesting debate taking place at York University in Toronto. Here’s the scenario: A student emails his professor saying he can’t do a particular group project because his religion doesn’t allow him to interact with women.

If you’re the professor, what do you do?

Sociology Professor J. Paul Grayson did what I think I would’ve done in that situation:

Grayson… received the request in September and denied it, arguing it would give tacit support to a negative view of women

Dr. Grayson argues that approving the request would make him “an accessory to sexism,” and could give others a precedent to avoid interacting with students of a given race, creed or sexual orientation.

In America, anyway, most public universities have policies that say professors should accommodate students’ religious beliefs within reason — and those policies are sound ones. For example, if students need to take a day off, you let them do it without penalty and allow them to make up any missed exams. No big deal.

The controversy at York is over what ought to qualify as a fair religious accommodation. Grayson doesn’t believe “I can’t work with women” is something that religion ought to exempt a student from… but he’s getting pushback from higher-ups:

… the dean of the faculty of arts disagreed [with Grayson] and has ordered him to grant the accommodation.

Martin Singer, the dean, countered that the school is legally obliged to heed the student’s wishes, and other students would not be seriously affected.

There’s one complication in this case: There’s another student enrolled in the class online who lives abroad. That student can’t do group projects in person so Grayson gave him an exemption. And if an exemption can be granted in that case, why not this one?

And so, here, the religious student was allowed to not work with women for religious reasons even though almost everyone agreed he was crossing the line. Even Singer joined that crowd eventually:

In a series of confidential letters, Dr. Singer also argued that granting the request “does not, in my opinion, qualify as a ‘substantial impact’ on any other student’s rights.

But that still raises the bigger question then: How far should religious accommodations go? At what point should professors be allowed to say, “That’s absolutely ridiculous. Do the work you’re supposed to do or drop out of this class”? Should Christians be allowed to say they can’t work with atheists (or vice-versa)? What if someone doesn’t want to research a topic that may go against his or her beliefs?

By the way, there’s a weirdly happy ending in this case. The student in question appreciated how his concern was handled, respected Grayson’s decision to deny his request, and ended up working with his female classmates. (So much for his faith?) I’m glad that worked out, but the underlying issue still remains unresolved.

(Image via Shutterstock)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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