A sociology professor went up against his university in an unexpected fight when a student in his online course refused to attend an in-person class with women, citing his religious beliefs. The professor refused to accommodate him, but the university said he was obligated to respect to student’s wishes.
The student wrote to York University professor J. Paul Grayson in an email that his religion prevented him from mingling with women in public.
“One of the main reasons that I have chosen internet courses to complete my BA is due to my firm religious beliefs, and part of that is the intermingling between men and women,” he wrote. “It will not be possible for me to meet in public with a group of women (the majority of my group) to complete some of these tasks.”
Grayson was shocked by the request and wrote a 12-page paper for the university’s Centre for Human Rights expressing his concern that agreeing to accommodate the student would make him an “accessory to sexism.”
"I basically refused," Grayson told CBC. "My main concern was that for religious beliefs, we also can justify not interacting with Jews, blacks, gays, you name it. And if this were allowed to go through, then all these other absurd demands could be made."
"Women for 50 years have been making gains in universities," he said. "This takes us back to the dark ages as far as I'm concerned. It's completely unacceptable."
Though the student refused to tell Grayson what his “religious beliefs” were, Grayson guessed he was either Muslim or Orthodox Jewish. He consulting with scholars of these religions, who told him the request surprised them, according to the National Post. One of the Islamic scholars said, “unless he is asked to be physical with a female student, which I assume he isn’t, there is absolutely no justification for not interacting with females in public space.”
While Grayson’s colleagues and students supported his decision, the administration found it problematic. According to the Globe and Mail, York’s provost, Rhonda Lenton, said students’ religious beliefs must be accommodated in accordance to Ontario’s Human Rights Code, pointing out that “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.”
In the end, Grayson denied the request, though the dean offered to refund the class if the student still could not attend the co-ed portion. The student, however, respected Grayson’s final decision and met with the group.