Religious rights don’t justify discrimination

Posted on August 5, 2015 in Equality Debates – Opinion/Commentary – A recent dispute on a Porter flight reminds us that religious freedoms should never trump equality rights.
Aug 04 2015.   By: Aurora Mendelsohn

What has been a recurring problem in the U.S. has now reached Canada.

In the U.S. Orthodox Jewish men have caused numerous delays and turmoil on flights by insisting women switch seats so the men can avoid sitting next to them. On a recent Porter flight from New Jersey to Toronto, a woman was asked by an airline attendant to switch seats to accommodate an Orthodox Jewish man who did not want to sit next to her for religious reasons but did not ask her directly.

The men in these cases present their cause as a simple request (or a demand) for religious accommodation. The women who are asked or pressured by the men and sometimes by airline attendants to move see the situation as discrimination based on sex and feel their rights are violated. Both religious accommodation and freedom from discrimination based on sex are integral values that define our view of ourselves as a nation.

As an observant Jew, I see the importance of accommodation. As a feminist, I cannot abide someone regarding gender as a reason to reject a seatmate on a plane. How can these seemingly conflicting values be resolved?

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms outlines “equality rights” as freedom from discrimination based on the characteristics of “race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.” Supreme Court rulings have extended these categories to include sexual orientation and marital status. Discrimination means that denial of equality based on these characteristics would be an affront to the person’s human dignity.

The Charter also guarantees freedom of religion for people to believe, worship and practice without discrimination. However one worships and whatever one believes should not be considered when renting an apartment, applying for a job or being served in a restaurant.

Most religious accommodation is not in conflict with equality rights. People who wear a hijab, turban or kippah are not denying anyone else anything. Similarly, a student who needs to miss a test at school to observe a religious holiday might make extra work for a teacher, but is not discriminating against that teacher based on his or her equality rights. Those who order halal or kosher meals on a plane have no effect on their pork-eating seatmates.

But some requests for religious accommodation do indeed conflict with equality rights, generally in the denial of equality based on gender or sexual orientation. In Ontario a woman was denied a haircut because no one in the shop was willing to touch a woman, based on religious grounds. The woman in question felt that being denied a service solely based on her gender was indeed an affront to her dignity. A professor at York University was uncertain what to do when a student in a mostly online class asked for religious accommodation to skip a group assignment because he might have to work with a woman.
Freedom of religion was originally conceived as freedom from discrimination. People have historically been denied access to education, housing, careers and recreation because of their religion. We should make sure our society is one where that no longer happens.

But freedom from discrimination based on religion should not extend to the right to discriminate against people in the public sphere. Just as I would be appalled if someone refused to serve me because observing their religion meant avoiding Jews, being told that my status as a woman made me an unacceptable customer or seatmate is an affront to dignity in the same way.

If your religion calls for you to treat women differently or unequally, do so freely in your church, mosque or synagogue, in your home and at your community events and have no fear that others will deny you a house or acceptance to a university because of it.

But when you enter the public sphere, you must respect people’s equality rights.

Aurora Mendelsohn lives in Toronto and writes about feminism and Judaism

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