When A Haircut Ain’t So Simple

16 Nov

Faith McGregor needed a haircut.  We all know that there are some hair cutting establishments that cater to male clientele and others to female clientele.  Some are unisex.  One assumes that those that cater to men do so because that is their expertise – it is what they specialize in – what they do best.  So what happens if a woman wants a “man’s” haircut?  Presumably she goes to a “men’s” barber and she gets a cut like men would “normally get.”  That is what Faith was looking for – a “man’s” haircut – though she is a woman.

So she went to a men’s barber shop on Bay Street in Toronto and asked for service.  She was denied.  She was refused because the barbers, being Muslim, are not permitted, by their faith, to cut hair of a woman who is not a family member.  Their religious duty as mandated by the Koran says that only a woman can cut another woman’s hair.  So they said “no” to Faith.

Rather than being satisfied with that answer Faith took personal exception to the religious beliefs of the barbers.  She filed a complaint to the Ontario Human Rights Commission.  That is her right.  The OHRC has accepted the complaint and mediation will be held in February in an attempt to settle the matter. [1]  It is highly improbable, in my view, that a settlement will be had.  If that is unsuccessful then the next step will be a hearing before a tribunal.

“I want the shop to be cited and forced to give haircuts in the fashion they provide [barbershop style] to any woman, or man that asks for one,” McGregor is reported to have said.  McGregor is also asking that a sign be posted in the front window stating both men and woman will be served.

We now have a classic case of where religious freedom to work and live in accordance with one’s conscience is in conflict with another persons’ equality right to service without discrimination based on gender.

This case raises some very interesting questions and is reminiscent of the 2002 case of Brockie v. Ontario (Human Rights Commission) where the OHRC found that Mr. Brockie’s refusal to print the material (letterhead and business cards) for a gay group because it violated his religious beliefs constituted discrimination based on sexual orientation and that any infringement of Brockie’s right to freedom of religion was justified in order to prevent harm to the members of the gay community.

Mr. Brockie’s freedom of religion did not extend to the practice of religious beliefs in the public marketplace.  On appeal the court held Mr. Brockie was to provide the printing services except where the material could be considered in direct conflict with the core elements of his religious beliefs. ([2002] O.J. No. 2375)  Presumably, materials other than letterhead and business cards that were promoting the gay lifestyle he could refuse to print.  So there was some allowance for his religious faith in the public but it was limited.

Faith McGregor’s case will raise the issues of the Brockie case all over again.  Could it be that the forcing of Muslim men to cut women’s hair be considered in direct conflict with the core elements of their religious beliefs?

But there are other questions:

Why should we expect in a multicultural society that religious people are to leave their beliefs at home when they go to work?

What is so terrible about going to another establishment to find service after being rejected by a service provider because of religious sensibilities?

What are the limits to religious expression?

Do we have a right to any public service no matter what?  Do men have a right to go into “Women only” fitness centres?

What if the person providing a service is closed for a religious holiday – should they be forced to serve even on their holy days?

Or, are we saying that if you are open then everyone who comes through the door must be served – no questions asked?

Is there a difference about what motivates the discrimination – for example does it matter that it is based on religious beliefs (a Muslim man can’t cut a woman’s hair because it is against his religion) as opposed to other matters such as gender (women want to exercise together just because they are women)?

In a multicultural society should we not make allowances for religious belief – when the services are such that they are easily obtained at another establishment?  Or do we not have any provision for tolerance of religious differences when the provider is in the public market place?

Why do we as a society even protect religion to begin with?  What is it about religion that is worthy of respect?




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