Where’s the line on “accommodation,” anyway?

Mike Davies, Editor-in-Chief  Ω

Mike Davies, Editor-in-Chief

Mike Davies, Editor-in-Chief

It bothers me that we use expressions like “freedom of expression,” and say that we believe in people’s rights to practice their religion and that we accommodate people’s beliefs — and then completely decide not to whenever we feel like it.

Many of you remember the 2013 spat between soccer players and their league about whether they should be allowed to wear their religious headgear, for example.

The league actually tried to say there was some “safety issue” with wearing a turban on a soccer pitch and then backed off that when people called them on that being nonsense. Then they tried to say it was because FIFA (the worldwide governing body of soccer) said that they weren’t allowed. They backed off again and actually ended up reversing the ban once they didn’t have any defense to its implementation after FIFA said they didn’t have a problem with it.

Maybe that’s a bad example. That was in Quebec, after all, and they’re currently trying to impose legislation that make it so public employees can’t wear anything that signifies their religious belief while at work.

But it recently came out that a student at York University in Toronto had refused to work in a group setting with female students because of his religious beliefs, and the fallout from that is causing some serious debate.

The student was taking his degree online, but there was an “in-person” requirement that involved group work that he had requested to be exempt from.

“One of the main reasons that I have chosen Internet courses to complete my BA is due to my firm religious beliefs,” the student wrote, saying he would be unable to meet in a public setting with female students.

Paul Grayson, the professor of the course, attempted to deny the student’s request, saying that religious beliefs shouldn’t trump women’s rights, but was overruled by the university itself, the reason being that if people are given accommodation for other reasons (physical disability, for example) then they should be given accommodation for religious beliefs, as well.

“Students often select online courses to help them navigate all types of personal circumstances that make it difficult for them to attend classes on campus, and all students in the class would normally have access to whatever alternative grading scheme had been put in place as a result of the online format,” said Rhonda Lenton, York University provost and vice president academic.

However, Grayson denied the student’s request nonetheless, and the student has agreed to work in the group setting with women, but the debate still rages on whether the school was right to accept the request, the professor was right to deny it, or even if the student should have been allowed to make the request in the first place.

Human rights rules are in place that mean a student can not be asked about their religious beliefs, so we don’t know exactly which religion the student is claiming to follow, but scholars at the university claimed that even Muslim or Orthodox Jewish students would not have that stipulation in their religion, “unless he is asked to be physical with a female student, which I assume he is not.” Some feel this student merely didn’t wish to work with female students and it had nothing to do with his religious beliefs.

Accommodation is a wonderful thing. But where does it cross a line?

We make sure that the buildings on campus have wheelchair ramps, for example, and I don’t think anyone would argue that we shouldn’t.

No one would say, “If they can’t get to the classroom, then they shouldn’t be allowed to attend,” and leave it at that.

According to the mandate of TRU Disability Services, “[TRU is] committed to facilitating and providing services and reasonable accommodations for students with documented disabilities in a manner that is consistent with TRU’s educational mandate and academic principles.  These objectives will enable students with disabilities to participate on the sole basis of their academic skills and abilities.”

If the objective of the university is to facilitate learning and allow them to participate “on the soul basis of their academic skills and abilities,” then can you deny education to someone based on anything other than their academic skills and abilities?

Like a belief structure, for example?

What say you? Where does “accommodation” cross the line and begin to be intrusive itself?