12/02/2012 11:38 EST | Updated 12/02/2012 11:38 EST

Religious Rights Don't Trump Human Ones in Canada


In Toronto, this past June, Faith McGregor, walked into the Terminal Barber shop owned by Omar Mahrouk and asked for a haircut. Mahrouk said his barber shop did not serve women.

McGregor filed a complaint against Mahrouk with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. Marhouk's defense? To touch a woman outside his immediate family is against his religion.

McGregor's decision to file a complaint against Mahrouk was the right one. She did not just end up with a bad hair day because he insisted on upholding a narrow interpretation of his faith.

No, McGregor was denied services because she is a woman -- something that should not happen here in Canada. It is no different than if she walked into a coffee shop and was denied a table because it was "men only." It is no different than if she walked into a job interview and was told the position was not available to women.

Mahrouk, is a business owner, and all businesses and institutions across Canada must not deny access to services to anyone because of gender.

That is the law.

Mahrouk as a business owner should have known this. He should have been able to immediately book an appointment at his barber shop for her, having another individual do the job.

Mahrouk infringed on McGregor's rights by failing to accommodate her and should now face the consequences. If Mahrouk wants to run a business catering strictly to men, he is in the wrong country.

That said, there is no reason that the laws that uphold equality of the sexes should ever infringe on individual religious values. Mahrouk need not touch McGregor to ensure that the law is upheld in his barber shop. The services just must be provided -- not necessarily by him. This means the law does not impinge on his religious freedoms.

The notion extends outside the realm of business. If a woman wants to be examined only by a female physician, that should be her right. If a woman is at the border and subjected to a search, she should be allowed to insist that only a female officer conduct it. The same principle applies to men in such circumstances.

In fact it is because we live in a society that promotes equality of the sexes that this is an option. In Canada, it is because there exist female physicians and female police and border guards this is possible.

So long as there is no shortage of hairstylists to cut a woman's hair, McGregor cannot insist that Mahrouk himself must do it, but Mahrouk should be able to find someone at his shop who will.

If we respect one another, we accommodate one another. It's called pluralism and it is allowed in all religions.