This story about religious dissenters at Ontario York University is one of those reality checks for 2k’s critics who say that the notion of faith being a private affair is audaciously perverse or perfidious:
J. Paul Grayson, a professor of sociology at Ontario’s York University, received what he described as an unusual request from a student in his online research methods class last fall. The student requested that he be exempt from an assignment requiring him to meet in-person with a group of his peers, writing to Grayson,
One of the main reasons that I have chosen internet courses to complete my BA is due to my firm religious beliefs, and part of that is the intermingling between men and women… It will not be possible for me to meet in public with a group of women (the majority of my group) to complete some of these tasks.
Grayson ultimately refused the student’s request for an accommodation, believing that to grant it would be to render him, and the university, “an accessory to sexism.” Grayson said that the student, whom he surmised is either Muslim or Orthodox Jewish – his identity has not been revealed for privacy reasons – graciously accepted the decision. He has since completed the assignment in question.
It would seem to be a case in which a sensitive situation was resolved satisfactorily enough. However, Grayson’s denial of the student’s request came over and above the objections of York administrators, including the dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, Martin Singer, who, in email correspondence shared by Grayson, said that the university had a legal obligation to accommodate the student’s religious beliefs and argued that to exempt him from group work would “in no way have ‘substantial impact’ on the experience or human rights of other students in the class.” Although, in what Grayson described as a tacit acknowledgement of a potential impact, the dean also wrote to Grayson, “It is particularly important, especially as you are concerned about the course experience of our female students, that other students in 2030.60B are not made aware of the accommodation” (a directive that Grayson said he is currently challenging through the York faculty union as a violation of his academic freedom).
Is it just (all about) me, or do believers, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Mormons, not have an obligation to accept the standards of an institution — such as religious pluralism and no religious tests for enrollment or teaching — when they decide to take courses and pay tuition? If a non-Christian enrolled at Moody Bible Institute and then complained that he was shocked, just shocked to find so much Bible and prayer in classrooms, wouldn’t Christians think the secularist should have known what he was in for? So why doesn’t this logic apply to believers at public institutions? Why do they think that when they arrive on campus, all of a sudden the place is going to turn faith-friendly or maybe even emulate the norms of their faith community?
So, when we have an institution — university or civil polity — that includes a diverse array of believers, believers have to figure out a way to distinguish their public conduct from their religious convictions. (What I say in my prayer closet is not what I say in the classroom.) One way to do that is to say that I am a Christian all the time but this religious identity is not going to be visible or public when participating in a community and abiding by a set of rules where Christianity is not the norm. Perhaps some forms of Christianity are incapable of making such a distinction. If so, then Christians should have nothing to do with religiously mixed polities or institutions. The Amish take that position (and I have great respect for it). But continuing to insist that public institutions comply with a person’s religious convictions when such an institution includes a variety of believers is either disingenuous or just plain recalcitrant.
And thankfully, we have the apostle Paul and John Calvin to sort this out. In his comments on 1 Cor 5: 12-13 — “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you” — Calvin writes:
There is nothing to hinder us from judging these also — nay more, even devils themselves are not exempt from the judgment of the word which is committed to us. But Paul is speaking here of the jurisdiction that belongs peculiarly to the Church. “The Lord has furnished us with this power, that we may exercise it upon those who belong to his household. For this chastisement is a part of discipline which is confined to the Church, and does not extend to strangers. We do not therefore pronounce upon them their condemnation, because the Lord has not subjected them to our cognizance and jurisdiction, in so far as that chastisement and censure are concerned. We are, therefore, constrained to leave them to the judgment of God.” It is in this sense that Paul says, that God will judge them, because he allows them to wander about unbridled like wild beasts, because there is no one that can restrain their wantonness.