In a lot of ways, my personal history reflects intensely a debate that is coming before the Canadian people this week… this year: the debate about what to do when multiple individuals’ rights come into conflict. It’s a subject that I’ve heard addressed, somewhat informally, several times over the last few years: a subject that we tend to deal with one at a time, as they come up. But we have no standard, and as different social groups start to exercise their rights, there are bound to be more conflicts. This week at York University was a perfect example, and it will not be the last.
A professor, Paul Grayson, was asked in September to accommodate a student’s faith: the student claimed that his religious beliefs did not allow him to “interact with women” (CTV News, 2014), and the online class required a single group assignment. The dean of York, “Martin Singer said he saw no other option but to approve the request, made on religious grounds.” (Toronto Star, 2014). The prof fired back publicly (Canoe, 2014) with some very good points. I would very much agree with him. I am surprised that Mr. Singer would not only make the decision that he did in the first place, but that he stands by it so strongly. It is a step backward in the fight for women’s rights (which are not yet achieved, in spite of being better) and a step backward for all minorities.
I, of course, immediately branch to the parallel issue of a student who doesn’t want to work with gay colleagues. A situation that is at least as common as not wanting to work with women. But it’s not a parallel issue, is it: it’s the same. Do religious teachings trump social values of equality? ‘“I’ve repeatedly said if we allow this kind of exclusion, we also have to allow the exclusion of Jews, blacks, gays and so on if there is a religious belief backing up a request for accommodation,” [Grayson] said.’ (CTV News, 2014)
I was educated at a school that teaches that homosexuality is not only wrong and sinful, but its associated radio station program produced a show that claimed same-sex marriage “could cause a civil war” (Addicting Info, 2013; Moody Radio, 2012, ~42:00). So I’m well experienced with issues of religious freedom. And it thus needs to be recognized that in a pluralistic society religion cannot be the ultimate good, the ultimate test, the ultimate right. Even within a faith, there are conflicts as far as what can or should or can’t be done. Since coming out as a gay man, I have to recognize that I cannot interact with my once-colleagues as I once did in the church context. Some choose not to speak to me at all. The core of my faith remains the same as it once was: but what I believe to be central only to myself (my marriage to my husband) to others is worthy of damnation. I understand this within church and religious settings: I accept it and work to forge understanding. But in the daily, secular, non-religious context, I have to be able to get beyond all that: or all our talk about human rights and dignity mean nothing.
I find it particularly interesting that, because of York’s policies, the religion in question could not be determined. As far as I know, there are no mainstream faiths that would have this kind of requirement: or else it would have come up before in some form. (Apparently Grayson also asked this question: “…he asked Jewish and Islamic scholars their opinions on the matter. None offered any scriptural justification to support the student’s request.(National Post, 2014)). So it was undoubtedly a sub-faith that has splintered from its main teachings, a personal interpretation… or someone who was just testing the system. Does that matter? I think it does. Getting back to the parallel issue of dealing with the LGBTQ community: does that mean that Singer at York would allow someone from Fred Phelps’ church to avoid… not work with… even insult… gay students because that is a central tenet of their faith? Phelps certainly teaches a “minority religious or cultural commitment” (Ottawa Citizen, 2014). But is that enough? Much though I believe and maintain that my faith is the core and the foundation of who I am and what I do as a person, I cannot and do not expect others’ values… individually or corporately… to violate their own beliefs because of mine. And to excuse a student or a colleague from working with others because of who they are would do exactly that.