Religious Accomodation vs Discrimination

National Post Editorial

"A generation ago, human-rights commissions were set up to ensure that Canadians weren’t discriminated against in the provision of employment, housing and trade because of their race, religion or sex. But as with every other government program, the bureaucrats who manage the HRCs mushroomed their mandate to encompass as many aspects of our lives as possible. The latest example: An Ontario Human Rights Commission investigation has determined that York University is “discriminating " against its non-Jewish students by canceling classes on Jewish holidays”

Please excuse my use of quotes for the OP but I felt that writer captured the issue quite succinctly. So I’m really having trouble fathoming out exactly which side is right here. I happen to be a Jewish student attending this school, and certainly the policy of no classes on the most important Jewish holidays makes my life a lot easier. I believe the school historically has had strong ties to the Jewish community and this policy was established a very long time ago, when outright discrimination against Jews was much more commonplace (and religious accommodations much more rare).

I do feel a certain element of guilt that the school schedules the academic year around my religious holidays, but ignores other religions which may be almost equally prevalent amongst the student body (i.e. Islam). It seems relatively easy to agree that Jewish students are receiving favorable treatment (even if other students are ‘excused’ from classes for religious reasons, its still easier for students who don’t miss classes in the first place)

Is it possible to show how this sort of policy might not be discriminatory/unfair? Are you aware of any remotely similar precedents in secular public universities?

The simplest solution would be not to have any religious holidays recognized for Christians, either. No break in the schedule for Christmas or Easter.

It’s obviously discriminatory. Jewish holidays are treated differently from Christian, Muslim and other holidays, and therefore the concerns of students who are Jews are treated differently from the concerns of students who are not Jews. How is that not disciminating between Jews and non-Jews?

The issue is whether this particular discrimination is arbitrary, or invidious, or otherwise objectionable under whatever legal standard Ontario applies to determine whether discrimination is lawful or not. I have no idea what that standard is.

The National Post opinion piece to which you link doesn’t actually discuss what that standard is or ought to be, which kind of deprives its criticism of the Human Rights Commissioner of any force. If the Human Rights Commission receives a complaint I assume that it has to investigate, and if it concludes that the practice complained of is a form of discrimination which infringes whatever test is imposed by Ontario law, how does the whole thing suddenly become the Commission’s fault?

You could criticise the Commission by saying that its finding was simply wrong; that the discrimination in question is not contrary to Ontario law. But this piece makes no attempt to do that. Or you could criticise the law, by saying that the test it applies to determine whether discrimination is acceptable or not is the wrong test. But this piece makes no attempt to do that either.

Assuming the correctness in law of the Commission’s finding, I suppose there is an implicit criticism of the legal standard, since the author obviously feels that this particular example of discrimination is not something with which the law should concern itself. But he doesn’t actually say why he thinks that, or say anything at all about what the appropriate legal standard ought to be.

You can have my winter and spring breaks when you pry them from my cold dead hands.

Of course, this year I was off from the second week of December to the second week of January, and I also got the third week of March.

I hate you. Last year I got a 2 week winter break and 4 days for spring.

As stated in my OP, that is my intuition too. However there is a difference between accommodating certain minorities and discriminating against others. For example, private washrooms and automatic doors for the disabled. These are special accommodations that people with certain disabilities can take advantage of while people with other handicaps might not get comparable assistance.

Also, I do have some faith that a contemporary western university must have been aware of this issue for quite some time and has some arguments up its sleeve.

oh and i like that term ‘invidious’, I have not previously come across it.


Don’t worry, when you get out into the ‘real world’, those long school holidays will be but a memory. Enjoy them while you get them.

Actually, I don’t think there is a difference. We use the term “accommodation” for a discrimination that we regard as acceptable or justifiable. Using a different term allows us to avoid the fact that this is, in fact, a discrimination, and so to avoid having to work out why we find it acceptable.

It’s very easy to pint to specific instances of clearly acceptable discrimination (male versus female changing rooms), and to specific instances of clearly unacceptable discrimination (black versus white drinking fountains). But setting out a general standard which can be used to judge all cases is much more difficult, and we try to duck the problem by pretending that “accommodation” and “discrimination” are fundamentally different things. Human Rights Commissions and the like have the unenviable task of trying to put some kind of shape on our collective fuzziness on this subject.

But when you get right down to it, isn’t everything, and I do mean every little thing in life discriminatory to a degree?

Every choice we make will be positive for some people, neutral for most, and negative for others.

My problem with these types of laws is that they try to determine/criminalise thought. Did you do action X because of an innocent reason or because you hate blacks? We’ve appointed the government the guardian of our thoughts, and once they have determined what our thoughts are, then they get to decide whether those thoughts are good or evil.
We opened a Pandora’s box in the 60s…