Accommodation of Religious Beliefs at School
Last week the media reported that York University Professor Paul Grayson refused a male student’s request to be separated from female classmates during a class activity for religious reasons. The student had been required, as part of his online course, to work in a face to face group activity.
The student asked to be removed from the group project because the group consisted of female students:
“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, 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.”
York University’s Dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies overturned Professor Grayson’s refusal to accommodate the student on the basis that the Dean believed the University had a duty to accommodate the student’s religious beliefs under these circumstances. Dean Singer said he had no option but to approve the accommodation request:
“I want to assure each of you [university colleagues] of my unwavering commitment to gender equity and of my sincere regret that, given the specific circumstances of this request for accommodation, I was obliged to conclude that the student’s request had to be accommodated.”
“I wish I had had another choice, but neither I, nor those who advised me, believe that I did.”
What is the response when a student’s accommodation request has the effect of discriminating against other students and employees of a school? In our view a duty to accommodate may not be required where an accommodation request crosses the line because it is discriminatory.
Students and employees in Alberta public school jurisdictions1 are entitled to be free from discrimination on the basis of religion and to have their religious beliefs accommodated at school. They also have the right to be free from harassing behavior that is based on religion or which arises because the student/employee who is the target of the behavior does not share the same faith.
To qualify for an accommodation, a student or employee must sincerely hold a religious belief. Religion has been defined as being "about freely and deeply held personal convictions or beliefs connected to an individual's spiritual faith and integrally linked to his or her self-definition and spiritual fulfillment, the practices of which allow individuals to foster a connection with the divine or with the subject or object of that spiritual faith.”
A ‘religious belief’ includes to a system of belief, worship and conduct. It does not include ethical or political beliefs nor does it extend to a belief that incites hatred or violence or that purports to violate human rights.
Valid religious-based accommodation requests should be reasonably accommodated to the point of undue hardship. Undue hardship is determined on a case-by-case basis.
Areas of Accommodation on the Grounds of Religious Belief
There are a number of areas where a religious belief may result in an accommodation request at school, including:
Observation of major holy days, ceremonies and celebrations (i.e. students and employees may request to be absent on this basis)
School opening and closing exercises
Dietary requirements/restrictions (including fasting)
Modest dress (for example physical education)
Portions of classes or programs that deal explicitly with religion human sexuality or sexual orientation.2
Limitations to Religious Accommodation
Freedom of religion is not absolute. Public school jurisdictions are entitled to limit religious practices or conduct within its schools that put public safety, health, or human rights and freedoms of others at risk.
Tips and Takeaways
You may wish to review your jurisdiction’s policy, religious accommodation guidelines and student handbooks to see whether your Division’s current procedure for accommodating religious observance include the following:
That accommodation for religious observances will be considered based on written requests
That, where possible, accommodation requests could be made at the beginning of the school year
That the request will be considered in the context of public safety, health or human rights and freedoms of students and employees
That guidelines are drafted for Kirpan accommodation
That a dispute resolution process is drafted in relation to unresolved issues.
If your jurisdiction is facing a difficult accommodation request on the basis of religion, we would be pleased to review the legal issues arising from your situation and advise as to how to most appropriately and practically respond.
1This email alert focuses on public school jurisdictions in Alberta. Roman Catholic Regional School Divisions in Alberta operate within the context of the constitutional protections afforded to the minority faith based ratepayer pursuant to the Constitution of Canada. While faith-based school jurisdictions must act in accordance with human rights and all other applicable legislation, they are constitutionally entitled to make preferential faith-based decisions in relation to students and employees. This email alert does not address those scenarios.
2Section 11.1 of Alberta’s Human Rights Act establishes requirements for the notification of parents and exemption of students from class or the place of instruction in certain instances where the subject matter of the course, program or instruction deals primarily and explicitly with religion, human sexuality or sexual orientation. See Notice under Section 11.1 of the Human Rights Act in the 2013-2014 Education Guide (p. 16, 73-75, 135-136).