In my view, both rights are fundamental for a society to be grounded in respect for human dignity. Indeed, in Canada, both rights are protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms – but the Charter, which applies to government action, would not directly apply to a commercial airline.
How far do we go to accommodate a sincerely held religious belief when it comes into conflict with the equality rights of someone else? If all rights are equal and there is no hierarchy, do we figure out these questions on a case-by-case basis? In Canada, decision-makers have ruled against a bed-and-breakfast owner who refused to rent to a gay couple. But some may ask, what about religious freedom? What about the innkeeper’s rights?
Personally, I don’t think that in a public or commercial space the religious beliefs of one person can be used to deny, or relegate (intentionally or not) as inferior, the equality rights of someone else. Religious freedoms are writ large and people are free to believe what they wish, and to act as they wish, short of causing harm to another. Gender segregation can and is upheld in private religious institutions freely attended by individuals – but in public spheres we must be vigilant about upholding the equality rights of all. If we wouldn’t tolerate the refusal to sit beside a racialized person, we shouldn’t tolerate sex discrimination, either.