01/19/2014 08:07 EST | Updated 03/21/2014 05:59 EDT

The Week In Review: When Rights Collide, Seek Common Sense

This week, the debate over religious accommodation in Canada continued. York University Professor J. Paul Grayson -- who helped bring the issue to the fore when he declined his student's request to be excused on religious grounds from working with women in the class -- wrote a piece calling for an impartial provincial inquiry on how such issues are affecting female education. Meanwhile, a Halifax teen named Sonja Power described feeling "degraded" after her aikido school accepted a Muslim student's request that, for religious reasons, he be exempted from physical contact with the females in the class.

For all our extensive handwringing and media debates about these examples, it's interesting to note that the concerned parties actually managed to come to their own reasonable solutions in both cases. At York, Grayson and the student both seemed to be content enough with the final outcome of the student taking part in mixed-gender group work like everyone else. (The student asked to be excused from the project, the prof carefully considered the request and said no, then they both moved on.) It wasn't until the administration got involved and insisted that this was an unacceptable end result that we had a big story.

Meanwhile, at the Halifax dojo, the proprietor of the school took the action he thought would best exemplify the spirit of his martial art; and the female student who was unhappy with the accommodation made for her fellow student did what any unhappy customer would -- she stopped giving the school her business. Other students who weren't bothered by the accommodation stayed. In the National Post, reporter Tristan Hopper noted a couple Canadian aikido dojos that have indicated that they would not permit a student to avoid physical contact with other students on religious grounds. Such dojos will attract students like Sonja Power, and turn off students like her accommodated classmate.

To me these are all quite reasonable consequences that suggest the collective freakout Canadian commentators seem to be having about a collision of religious and gender rights is overblown. Yes, sometimes decisions will need to be made that won't please everyone. But most of the time, the people involved will be able to navigate those situations sensibly and privately, without human rights commissions or activists and TV commentators dictating the correct answers. Because realistically, those answers will differ in each case. None of us is just a woman (or a Muslim or a disabled person or a black person, etc.). We're all human beings with multiple characteristics that will create opportunities and obstacles, advantages and restrictions, when dealing with each other. If we concentrate more on protecting the overarching right of individuals to act as they see fit, then the rest of the complicated calculations (Does gender trump religion? Does creed trump sexual orientation?, etc.) will take care of themselves.


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