s_york_university-cp-02941233

York University Prof. Paul Grayson rejected a request from a student seeking to avoid group work with women because he said his religion forbid him from meeting with females. (Canadian Press )

A York University student taking an online course is seeking to be excused from group work because his religious beliefs forbid him from meeting with female classmates.

His professor at the Toronto university, Paul Grayson, rejected his request, which ignited a controversy at the university about human rights. 

"I was quite shocked," Grayson told CBC-Radio's Ontario Today. He said he did not know the religion of the student, but fundamentally did not agree with accommodating him.

The sociology professor got in touch with the Centre for Human Rights and the dean's office at York. Both replied that he had to comply with the student's request, with the dean issuing three separate orders to comply.

"I basically refused," said Grayson. "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."

Grayson said accommodating the student would be against everything he stands for.

"Women for 50 years have been making gains in universities," said the professor. "This takes us back to the dark ages as far as I'm concerned. It's completely unacceptable."

The communication between Grayson and the university took about three months. In that time, Grayson had a conversation with the student directly about his request.

"Very early in the game, I got in touch with the student and said, look, I'm sorry, I simply cannot accommodate you. And his reaction basically was, oh, OK. And he was OK with it. The student is not the problem."

The student participated in the group project, ultimately. But Grayson said the university ordered him to make it clear to the student that he did not have to meet with female classmates.

The university issued a statement saying it is committed to respecting religious beliefs, but said the case was "complicated by the fact that it was an online course where alternative arrangements were put in place to accommodate students who were unavailable to attend classes on campus."

Federal politicians back professor

A handful of federal politicians say they agree with the professor and that the school went too far in siding with the student.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay said that having men and women attend school together was precisely what Canada fought to accomplish when it sent soldiers to Afghanistan.

Liberal MP Judy Sgro, who represents the riding of York West in which the university is located, said the professor made the right decision. Conservative MP Mark Adler, who represents the adjacent riding of York Centre, says there is no place in Canadian society for sexism

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said universities should not be accommodating such a demand.

With files from The Canadian Press