A York University student’s request to be excused from course work, on the grounds that his religion prevents him from interacting with women, has sparked a human rights debate over how universities should navigate between religious accommodation and human rights.

The issue first arose in September when a student in J. Paul Grayson’s online sociology course asked to be excused from meeting in person with classmates for a mandatory assignment.

Grayson said he contacted the dean’s office and the university’s Centre for Human Rights after receiving the request because he deemed the demand “too big” to handle himself.

“I thought the university should have a principled stance on this kind of occurrence,” he said Thursday on Newstalk 1010’s Moore in the Morning.

Much to Grayson’s astonishment, the university asked the professor to accommodate the student’s request.

Grayson said other colleagues were shocked “that in a secular university it would be okay to have religious rights trump the secular rights of female students.”

He added that such exclusion on the basis of religion could contribute to the marginalization of other students.

“I’ve repeatedly said if we allow this kind of exclusion, we also have to allow the exclusion of Jews, blacks, gays and so on if there is a religious belief backing up a request for accommodation,” he said.

And after consulting with Judaic and Islamic scholars -- not knowing the student’s religion -- Grayson found there was no reason for the student to abstain from interacting with women for the purposes of the course he is enrolled in.

Grayson, who has never met the student in person, said he had an online conversation with him to explain his reasons for refusing the request, despite orders from the dean asking Grayson to comply. 

“He’s a fairly reasonable guy, he’s not the problem,” Grayson said. “When I gave reasons why it was not possible, he basically said: ‘well I accept that, and I’ll do the assignment.’”

And while Grayson may face consequences for defying the dean’s decision, he doesn’t believe the university will go through with disciplinary action.