By Sierra Bein and Laura Woodward
Recently, Toronto has been faced with new challenges of equity versus equality when it comes to religion in the classroom.
In September, a York University student requested to be excused from a group assignment on the grounds that he could not work with women due to his religious beliefs.
His professor initially denied the request, but the program dean allowed the student to study separately from the women.
The dean claimed he had no option and felt powerless. Since then, the controversy has spread across Toronto and Canada.
Ryerson president Sheldon Levy said that he would have handled this situation differently.
“I would have said to the student – I would have said to any student – that the information we provide you on the start of the course should make it clear that that type of exception is not made,” he said.
Levy said Ryerson is a inclusive community where everyone should feel at home and work together. Deciding who would be more infringed upon – the student refusing to work with the group of women or the women – is the basis of the issue.
“We would have certainly made it very clear or should make it very clear that our policy is one that’s inclusive… to any student on taking any course, whether it is online or not.”
David Checkland, a philosophy of religion professor of 20 years at Ryerson, has never heard of this sort of request being made at the university.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to grant requests like that in general,” Checkland said.
For him this is different than a request from a student who is supposed to pray at a certain time of the day or needs to change his exam date.
“Those issues can be solved easily,” he said.
This specific request caused debate about what a religious request encompasses.
“A reason for the university to respect people’s difference has to be intelligible on grounds we can understand, not sharing the beliefs of the person,” he said. “We can’t understand why it would be a good thing to do it. There’s no reason for it at all.”
Zahra Hojati, a women and Islam professor at Ryerson, believes every party in the situation used logic when handling the situation.
“We should accept that Canada is a secular system,” Hojati said. “Students should be prepared to study together, to have a collaboration together, without considering that it is a boy and girl.”
Hojati also said that we should expect more requests like this in the future, but not only in terms of gender.
“Maybe some kid will say ‘I’m not happy to work with another race or another sexuality,’ maybe lesbian or gay or whatever, I’m not happy to work with them. So what do you want to do with them?”
Students at Ryerson also voiced their opinion about religious accommodation in the classroom.
“Religion is more important than school,” second-year business student, Yosief Ellaham said.
“I understand that [a student’s] opinion might not parallel with the Canadian norms, but you have to respect it, even in the school setting.”
Third-year accounting student Ryan Blackburn said that situations like this one are unavoidable.
“There’ll be situations that clash with religion, but it’s impossible to accommodate to every single person’s every request, especially in university,” Blackburn said.
Ryerson religious observance policy states that accomodations should prevent academic disadvantage or penalty to students.
This policy allows absences to students such as temporarily missing class due to daily prayers or breaking a fast during class.
These policies primarily cover the absence of exams and term testing, but the issue does ignore the choosing of group members within a course.