UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds

Faith in the public sphere

Religious freedom ends when it infringes on gender equality

By Dennis Gruending

When a male student at York University recently requested — for religious reasons — that he be excused from interacting with female classmates, it led to an intense debate over competing rights and religious accommodation.

The school’s sociology professor, Paul Grayson, denied the request because he says it infringed upon the rights of his female students “to be treated with respect and as equals.” Grayson was overruled by the dean of arts, who felt that a religious right trumped gender equality. But by then, the student had already accepted Grayson’s decision and completed his assignment along with others, including females. Crisis averted.        

Nevertheless, similar requests will have real and negative consequences for women and girls, not only in schools and universities, but also in business and elsewhere. Hard-fought gains for gender equality will be undermined. The event at York University also exposes the need for greater clarity in our thinking about the nature and limits of religious freedom.  

For the most part, Canada’s Charter of Rights guarantees a list of “fundamental freedoms” and assures protection against discrimination on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age, as well as a mental or physical disability. But protection of someone’s religious rights, for example, ends where that protection would infringe upon the rights of another. In other words, religious freedom is not unique, but rather one among a wider set of freedoms.

Of course, many Canadians profess to be religious believers. Yet despite this freedom to practice religion, we also recognize that our public institutions are largely secular in nature. It’s one thing to enforce the separation of males and females in a mosque or a traditional Jewish synagogue. It’s quite another to attempt to impose such a separation in a public school or university. Some religions will not allow women to be priests or ministers, and that is for them to decide, but they cannot expect to apply similar gender-based limitations elsewhere in society. Some churches refuse to marry same sex couples and are within their right to do so, but they cannot expect to prevent those marriages from taking place in other churches or in courthouses.  

This is not to say that religious organizations should be prevented from participating in public debates about legislation of all sorts: taxation, climate change, poverty, childcare or foreign policy. After all, it’s their right to. But their influence will be only as good as their arguments.

Author's photo
Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based author, blogger and a former Member of Parliament. His work will appear on the second and fourth Thursday of the month. His Pulpit and Politics blog can be found at www.dennisgruending.ca.
Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!
Promotional Image


David Wilson%


by David Wilson

If statues could talk

Promotional Image


ObserverDocs: Stolen Mother

by Observer Staff

The daughter and adoptive mother of one of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women share their story

Promotional Image


July 2017

From far and wide

by Various Writers

Meet 11 immigrants who are putting down new roots


June 2017

A suitcase for Cuba

by Christopher Levan

You’ll find more than giveaway toiletries and hand-me-downs in the writer's luggage. Each carefully chosen gift offers a glimpse into the lives of Cubans today.


June 2017


by Kristy Woudstra

Up to half a million people are living in Canada without official status. The ‘sanctuary city’ movement is growing, but the fear of deportation persists.


June 2017

Resisting genocide

by Sally Armstrong

In August 2014, ISIS attacked Iraq’s Yazidis, slaughtering thousands and forcing women and girls into sexual slavery. Today, the survivors are fighting for their ancient way of life.


April 2017

Dear Grandkids

by Various Writers

Six acclaimed Canadian authors write letters from the heart


March 2017

Called to resist

by Paul Wilson

Liberal Christians in the United States test their faith against a demagogue

Promotional Image