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When is accommodating religious requirements unethical?: Chris MacDonald

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Religious requirements that imply contempt for half the human species cannot be supported, even in cases where accommodating them implies no real hardship, and no demonstrable violation of anyone’s rights.

As was widely reported in the media, controversy arose recently in Toronto after a York University professor declined a student’s request to be excused on religious grounds from a group work assignment that was part of an online course. The student claimed  his religion forbade him from interacting in person with women, something that the group work would have made necessary. The professor declined the request, but university administrators attempted to overturn that decision, on the grounds that religious requirements must be accommodated where possible, under Ontario’s Human Rights Code.

It’s tempting, but ultimately unproductive, to get caught up on the particularities of the case. Which religion was involved? What does it really demand? Is in-person group work a reasonable requirement in the first place for an online course? Is group work central to the pedagogical mission of the university or of the course? For our purposes, all of that is beside the point. Decision-makers in such a case must, of course, attend diligently to such details. But for those of us interested in debating the principles at stake, the details may actually confuse things.

Best to stick to the fundamentals: a male student requesting, on religious grounds, to be excepted from a group-work assignment that would have required that he work with—interact with—female classmates.

Two questions arise.

First, should religious requirements be accommodated at all? There is broad agreement, I think, that reasonable efforts should be made to accommodate religious belief and practice. It would be a bad thing, in a society that believes in freedom of religion, to tell people that adhering to their religions means exclusion from university or health care or, for that matter, from employment. It is generally (though not universally) believed that religious commitments are particularly deep and meaningful ones, central to a person’s self-identity, and so limiting someone’s expression of their devotion to their religion is significantly worse than, say, interfering with their interest in watching their favourite TV show.

Second, if we are willing to accommodate religion, what specific kinds of requests ought not be accepted? The usual route is to say that only “reasonable” accommodations must be made—not ones that disrupt operations, or that impose onerous costs, or that jeopardize safety. So, modifying dress codes to accommodate religious dress requirements is generally OK. Allowing people a few minutes during the day to pray is OK. And so on. But anything that would jeopardize health and safety (e.g., a religious head covering that precludes the wearing of a safety helmet) doesn’t have to be accommodated.

But the two exceptions explicitly allowed here in Ontario—“undue hardship” (i.e., cost), on one hand, and health-and-safety, on the other—fail to capture one other important factor, namely the non-safety rights of other members of the institution. But clearly institutions (public or private) have an obligation to protect the rights of their members—their students, their patients, their employees. Luckily, cases in which religious accommodation comes up against the rights of others have been relatively few.

Toronto lawyer Kenneth Krupat has a useful blog entry outlining a few legal precedents involving a clash of rights.

In the cases Krupat cites, the general trend is that religion will be accommodated only up to the point where it interferes with someone else’s rights. So that’s (again, very roughly) the legal standard. But I think the ethical standard could be stricter still. For even if religious accommodation doesn’t literally violate someone else’s rights—if, for instance, accommodating the student in the case above weren’t found to have violated his female classmates’ right to equal treatment—there would still be grounds for denying the request. Some religious requirements should not be accommodated simply because they are unacceptable on principle. Yes, religious conviction is worthy of respect. But all religions evolve, and do so in part because the views of individual members of those religions evolve, as do their interpretations of specific religious requirements. Rather than accommodate religious beliefs that hold half the human species in contempt, we ought to gently encourage those who hold such beliefs to reconsider them.