Over the last few weeks the issue of reasonable accommodation has regained its place in the national conversation.
A recent case at York University in Toronto focused on a student who asked to be excused from an assignment because it would require him to be in contact with female students. A second case, less commented on, involved a Japanese martial arts class in Halifax where a student requested that the class be separated so that he would not have spar with female students. In both cases the request for accommodation was made for religious reasons.
I have no inside information on either of these situations but, in some quarters, it seems that the term reasonable accommodation has been misunderstood, and the requests have been deemed either discriminatory themselves or segregationist or misogynistic. So let’s talk.
First, though, a bit of disclosure. I am a firm believer in the principle of reasonable accommodation, as well as the complementary principle of undue hardship. My position is based not only on 20 years of work in the area but also some first-hand encounters with the issue.
In 1978, in my last year at University of Toronto, I requested that one of my exams be rescheduled so that I could be in Montreal for Passover. My professor was agreeable but said that I would need approval from the registrar’s office. I was told, “Mr. Rudner, your quaint religious customs are not the concern of the University of Toronto.” I related this to my professor and offered to take a zero on the exam (it was only worth about 15% of the final mark) if that was the only way we could make this happen. The professor told me to go to Montreal and that he would give me a special exam session when I returned. And he did.
Over the course of my working career, I’ve often requested time from work for holidays and other religious accommodations. Somehow, my employers and I have always managed to work things out.
Having been a beneficiary of religious accommodation, I tend to look at it as a positive process. Having advocated for those whose employers have been unwilling to grant it – or have simply been unclear on the necessity – I have sympathy for those who request it.
I’ve never met the York University student who requested the accommodation, nor have I spoken with those involved but, I have to say, based on what I read in the papers, the request was not unreasonable. If I assume for the moment that the student’s religion did indeed impose such a restriction on him and that his request was sincerely made, then there is no reason to conclude that his intent was misogynistic.
Some members of the Orthodox Jewish community will not shake the hand or make physical contact with a member of the opposite sex to whom they are not related. This does not mean that they consider the “other” to be inferior; for them, it is a matter of modesty and deportment. It may also be a matter of the individual adopting an additional stringency upon themselves. For example, and as noted in the ArtScroll introduction to the Kol Nidrei service, certain oaths alter the status of an object (i.e., this apple becomes forbidden to me) while others alter the status of the person (i.e., I am forbidden to eat this apple). So one possible interpretation of the York student’s request for accommodation is that the restriction may have nothing to do with the status of the women in the class and everything to do with an obligation he has taken upon himself.
There is of course a big difference between my requesting an alternative to being in a room with a person of the opposite sex and requesting that the other person be excluded from the meeting so that I can attend. In the latter case I am imposing my views / beliefs on another person, and that is wrong.
Slippery slope arguments are often deployed in such situations, and so we are asked to consider a hypothetical situation in which a person held a religious belief that forbade them from being a room with Jews, Gays or some other group.
First, I’m not a big fan of slippery slope arguments. Neither, for that matter are the courts, which generally uphold the view that issues of accommodation need to be determined on a case-by-case basis.
That aside, it’s important to remember that the same human rights code that protects me from discrimination because of my religion also protects others from discrimination as a result of my religion.
So while I can’t from a distance determine the rights and wrongs of the situation at York or fairly comment on the positions of the student, Dean Martin Singer or Professor Paul Grayson, neither can I get all worked up because the matter was raised in the first place. These are important issues, well worth the time to consider.
Funnily enough, back in the early 70s, I was in martial arts class and asked the Sensei not to assign me a female sparring partner. Mind you, my reasons were different: I simply could not bring myself to hit a woman. The Sensei said that he could not comply because it was a small class and it was important for the women to learn how to defend themselves against much larger opponents. That seemed reasonable and I left the class. Reasonable people will act reasonably if you give them a chance to do so.