Religious Accommodations Need Limits


Dr. Grayson of York University in Toronto, Canada should be commended for the brave action he took by denying a student’s request for religious accommodation.  According to his beliefs, the student could not meet with his fellow female classmates to work on a school project.

I sent Dr. Grayson an e-mail of support and so did many others, championing his commitment to women’s equality and his respect for secularism. In his article in The Globe and Mail, Dr. Grayson defends York University noting that their decisions were based on on what was dictated by the Ontario Human Rights Code — even if  flawed.

I have a question for the Ontario Human Rights Commission: Since when is it acceptable to perpetuate sexism in the name of religious accommodation in Canada?  Let’s not forget that women in this country have fought for equality and it was less than 100 years ago that we were legally recognized as “persons”. This is a secular country, attracting immigrants fleeing theocracies who don’t want religion to control every aspect of their life.  Why are we even entertaining the idea that segregation of the sexes is acceptable when it can have such a negative impact on a huge demographic?

Dr. Grayson points out that since many elementary schools are making these concessions,  students will naturally expect the same when they attend a post-secondary institution.   Allowing this to happen in public funded institutions is wrong and problematic from many perspectives.

If we agree that the goals of post-secondary institutions are to prepare students for critical thinking, career exploration and finding employment, then we are doing these students a disservice.  Giving them the impression that we are prepared to segregate our workplaces along the lines of sex to accommodate one person; we cannot blame them for thinking this is possible if it has been done all along.

 Here are a few examples of religious accommodation that I have come across in my work with post-secondary institutions:

  • Female students with face-coverings who can only work in female groups.
  • Male co-op students who insist that they can only work in male workplace settings.
  • Nursing students who cannot follow through on in-class demonstrations that require touching students of the opposite sex.

Unless the labour shortages become extremely intense, I really doubt that the average Canadian employer would be able to accommodate the above requests. By doing so, could spell disaster for both the employees and employers in both monetary and human terms.  It tears at the very soul of this country which values equality.  And while workplaces are trying to becoming more inclusive,  accommodating one of these requests will only have ripple effects, negatively impacting many employees and ultimately the one initiating the request. Resentment and vilification will spread.  We only need to look at the reaction the York University student has received.

 Those working in employment services with religious minorities should discuss workplace accommodations.  Be very honest about the impact their request may have on their ability to obtain a job and retain one. For example, I may say:  “Yes, it is your right to not shake the hand of the opposite sex”.  But add:  “In Canadian culture, shaking hands is a standard greeting and expected business practices, it in no way has any sexual connotation”,    “If you don’t shake someone’s hand when they offer it, there is a good chance they will feel offended that you didn’t think they were worthy of this greeting.  Or, that you are arrogant”.  I also add that they have to ultimately make the decision whether they will carry on with some of their practices in public because of the effect they can have on employment and forming relationships outside their religious groups.

 I am not entirely against religious accommodations. Dietary accommodations, and days off for observance are reasonable requests which have little impact on others especially when they are anticipated.  But, the Ontario Human Rights Commission needs to have a better pulse on what is happening in our workplaces when its values conflict with those of most Canadians.

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