In a free society that cherishes respect for the varying practices, beliefs, and viewpoints of different people, all public institutions have a responsibility to make reasonable accommodations for those individuals whose way of life differs from the norm. Thus, in Canada, we modify our strict RCMP uniforms to accommodate turbans and allow Sikhs to wear their required ceremonial dagger in schools, with certain provisions to maintain safety. We make these accommodations because they pose no threat to the values and principles on which our society is built. It is only when religious or cultural practices do pose a threat that we should reject accommodation and remind people that strongly held beliefs, even religious ones, do not justify compromising equality.
York University justified its decision in part by saying that so long as no one told the girls, nobody would be offended by segregation. And York is correct, insofar as this would likely cause direct harm to no one at all. But that misses the point entirely: the reason for rejecting calls for gender segregation on religious grounds is not that it might offend someone if they knew, but that it offends the very concepts of equality and inclusion Canada is built on.
Can we imagine the uproar if, as the professor hypothesized, the student had used a twisted interpretation of the Bible to request a project group free of black people? Are we prepared to make space for racism, so long as someone believes it is a divine commandment? I doubt it. Why, then, do we apply a different standard when it comes to sexism?
Yes, people have the right to believe whatever they want. If this student wants to live his days avoiding women in public, that’s fine. But no one should legitimacy to such beliefs by accommodating discrimination.
It is the mark of an advanced society to respect diverse viewpoints. But it is also the mark of that society to know which viewpoints are antithetical to its foundations, and to reject them accordingly. If believing that gender equality is inherently superior to segregation is cultural imperialism, so be it. There are some things more important than hurting people’s feelings.
The right to religious freedom does not justify imposing backwards and medieval ideas on our institutions, no matter how genuinely these ideas are held. Segregation is not some harmless concept a tiny minority of religious people believe in; it is the forebear of institutionalized discrimination, the mark of a society dominated by small-minded thinking rather than equality and progress. Women in Canada have come a long way. Nothing, not even religion, should be allowed to set them back.