A Canadian student's request not to interact with female peers on religious grounds provoked a national debate Thursday on how far secular institutions should go to accommodate faith.
The unusual case also has set the young man's sociology professor, who turned down the request, against the university administration in a standoff.
The issue arose last September when the student taking an online course at York University in Toronto asked to be excluded from a cooperative study group because he wished to avoid interacting with women.
"One of the main reasons that I have chosen Internet courses to complete my BA (Bachelor of Arts) is due to my firm religious beliefs, and part of that is the intermingling between men and women," the student wrote in a letter made public this week.
The student, whose religion was not revealed, added, "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."
After sociology professor J. Paul Grayson turned down the request, he was ordered by the faculty dean, Martin Singer, to accommodate the student's wishes.
Since then the issue has spiralled and became a hotly-debated topic in Canadian newspapers Thursday, even after the student withdrew his request and politely thanked Grayson and the school for considering it.
In a paper documenting the case, cited by several Canadian newspapers, Grayson explained that he did not wish to become an "accessory to sexism."
He also expressed worry that it might set a precedent for others to avoid interacting with students of a given race, creed or sexual orientation.
"I doubt that we would sanction a student refusing, for religious reasons, to interact with Blacks in classes even though Biblical justification could be found," Grayson wrote in a letter to the university's Centre for Human Rights, cited by the National Post.
According to several reports, the university administration has remained firm in its position that it has a legal obligation to accommodate religious beliefs, based on the Ontario Human Rights Code.
As well, the dean reportedly said other students would not be seriously affected by such an accommodation.
Neither Grayson nor Singer were immediately available for comment.