Airline seats, accomodation and mutlicultural societies

The recent decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in MLQ v. Saguenay prompted me to write this blog. This decision has great relevance given the complex issues that arise in societies as they increase in diversity.

Recently, I flew a budget airline to London. As is always the case I had a seat in economy. Mine was an aisle seat in the middle row. There was a middle-aged Indian woman seated beside me in the centre and beside her, on the other aisle seat, a young Englishman. This woman was clearly agitated with the seating arrangements. Her teenage daughter was in the middle seat in front of her flanked by two men and her husband was two rows behind us flanked by two women. She began by wildly gesticulating to the airline stewardess to request a seat change, to which the woman said since the flight was full she could do nothing but maybe her co-passengers would oblige. At this point I knew what was coming and my spine stiffened. Clearly I was a candidate for the switch with her husband. I am usually not mean and like to oblige – but not in this instance. I was not charitable enough to trade an aisle for a middle seat, especially one that was a closer to the toilet. I must have repelled her with a fairly defensive and stern stance because she immediately turned to the guy seated to the other side of her and asked if he would switch with her daughter who, she claimed, was afraid to be seated beside two men. To my astonishment, the young man immediately obliged and squeezed his gangly body and limbs into the middle seat between two portly men, to allow her daughter to sit beside her. Now she could have ridden on her wave of success and made the same request of me. Alas she did not because she had read my body language.

These kinds of requests touch on many issues that are quite close to all of us – personal space, our sense of who we are and our individual rights balanced against the need to accommodate under reasonable circumstances. I am motivated to share this story because on a recent CBC radio program (“The Current”)I heard Alana Stockman (“Alana”),a feminist writer, say she was made to feel like I did, guilty for no reason, when an Orthodox Jewish man on an El Al flight refused to sit beside her. She stayed put in her window seat refusing to move. On this show, she and another writer Sharon Shapiro (“Sharon”) shared their views on what El Al should have done under these circumstances. Sharon said they should have ensured they have a policy (given this is a frequent occurrence) whereby they designate rows, or they have people make specific requests at the time of booking that the airline could then try to accommodate. Alana opined that such policies have the effect of entrenching a social system which can discriminate against groups at will – in this case, women. In her view we would once again be handing over to fundamentalists, the right to make women “invisible”.

For our purposes the point I am making is that as religious fundamentalism gains societies are having to make more and more decisions around accommodation and, given the intended and unintended consequences that could ensue, these must be given careful consideration and thought.

A recent example of such a fundamentalist act is Indiana’s Religious Freedom Bill.  Signed into law by Governor Mike Pence last month, this law actually allows individuals and corporations to deny services where it goes against their religious conscience. In effect, this draconian law actually gives people the right to deny other people their rights in the name of religion. The groups most vocally opposed represented the LGBT community which saw it as a direct attack on them given recent incidents where businesses had denied services for gay weddings. However, under this legal regime anyone can potentially be denied a service under the cover of religion.

In light of the above, the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling last month in MLQ V. Saguenay, which went the other way, came as a breath of fresh air. In rejecting a Municipality’s right to have a prayer at the beginning of their meetings, the court held “the evolution of Canadian society has given rise to the concept of neutrality according to which the court must not interfere in religion and beliefs”.

So coming back to the El Al story what’s the right treatment of someone seeking religious accommodation. I believe Canada’s legal approach is best, to buck the rise of fundamentalism. There would be two tests that the person seeking accommodation would have to respond to. One, would the accommodation result in violation of values in a civil society? If it would, then there would be no accommodation. In this instance, the person seeking a different seat clearly would have the right to be accommodated. However, the request would then have to pass a second test- whether their religion obligates the individual to act in a certain way that they would require such accommodation? Here is where, in our example, the Orthodox Jewish person’s right to be accommodated may come undone. It appears there is nothing really in Judaism which calls for such segregation of the genders in physical space, therefore this trend towards increasing state sanctioned segregation is recent. Apparently, the first bus lines segregating genders was introduced in Jerusalem 2001 and now there are over a 100. If the strict practice of Judaism does not obligate genders to be segregated then this man’s argument that it would go against his religious conscience to remain in close proximity to women would have to fail, with the airline having no duty to accommodate. These tests do not provide all the answers but they do provide some direction for how societies should be grappling with these complex issues as we become more multicultural and global.

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