With the very real prospect of a government climb-down on the implementation of the upcoming Sexual Orientation Regulations in England, Wales and Scotland on the horizon, the very last thing that we need is the distraction of Exeter University’s Evangelical Christian Union’s impending legal action against the University of Exeter Students’ Guild.
This is a case that simply should not be happening, and the fact that it is to take place is purely and simply down to the errant stupidity and political zealotry of the Student’s Guild, who are attempting to interfere in matters that are, quite frankly, none of their business.
Before getting into this properly there are a couple of points that need to disposed of from the outset.
The first is, naturally, my own personal position on religion. I am, as should be obvious to any regular (or semi-regular) visitor to this blog, an atheist and one who holds pretty strong opinions on the subject of religion and its unmerited and (I consider) unsustainable position of privilege in British society.
When it comes to religion, I have, self-admittedly, a number of axes to grind. I’m an advocate of a secular state with a clear (and clearly enforced) separation between church and state. I support the disestablishment of the Church of England and the removal of Bishops from the House of Lords, at least in so far as they enjoy position as a matter of right – if a Bishop wishes to stand for election to the legislature and is successful in their campaign, then that’s fair enough; they would be democratically elected like anyone else and entitled to their seat. I would happily see an end to state funding of faith schools and the removal of the requirement that all state schools conduct religious assemblies and include religious education on the curriculum – the latter I would like to see replaced by a broad education in civics, government and citizenship, which would include education about religion and religious belief, but not actual religious instruction. I am also a strong advocate of equality in the broadest sense of the term and, again. would strongly argue that any body or organisation that cannot or will not subscribe to policies that treat all people equally should be denied state funding for their activities.
Its the nuances of that last point, on equality and access to state funding, that are most relevant here. I am not opposed to the existence of groups and organisations that exist primarily to service the needs of a particular group or community nor do I consider it wrong that such groups apply reasonable restrictions on membership and involvement in management and governance to the specific group or community they aim to serve. However, where such groups and organisations receive public money to provide services and activities to ‘the community’, whoever that might be, my clear expectation is that they do not unreasonably discriminate in the manner in which those services are provided – and I say unreasonably because there are cases in which it reasonable to make exceptions to such a general rule.
A good and increasingly common example of such a valid exception is female-only swimming sessions that cater, primarily, to communities where a mixed-activity of that kind would be culturally unacceptable. Most often these sessions are provided in areas with a sizable Muslim and/or South Asian community (its not just Muslims who have a culturally preference for such segregated activities) and represents a reasonable accommodation of cultural values – provided, of course, that these sessions are open to women from all communities and not just restricted to on individual community.
There are a range of valid exceptions to this general rule of non-discrimination, the vast majority of which are no more than matters of common sense – think in terms of women’s refuges, another example of a service that is publicly-funded (but not nearly well-enough) where it is entirely reasonable to exclude men from any involvement.
When it comes to the provision of services and activities, what matters is how those services and activities are provided, not who provides them. That is certainly true of publicly-funded services and also, to a slightly more limited extent, of privately-funded services.
Using the ‘restricted access’ swimming session as an example, again. If a Muslim organisation wishes to book a local swimming pool using its own funds and restrict access only to members of its own organisation, or even community, then that is fair enough. Its a private booking and, as a private booking, not a matter in which the state should interfere, regardless of Britain’s well-established canon of equality legislation. The critical distinction to be made here, is between services and activities that take place in public domain, as opposed to those taking place in the private domain and here that the nuances and subtleties of such a distinction need to be carefully understood.
To use a very current example to illustrate what I mean, one of the arguments put forward by the religious lobby against the upcoming Sexual Orientation Regulations is that it will compel Christian owned/run bed and breakfast owners to let rooms to homosexual couples (of whom they disapprove) whether or not such actions would be contrary to their conscience and religious beliefs, or face a claim of unlawful discrimination.
These regulations, if not ‘spiked’ by the inclusion of opt-outs for religious beliefs, would certainly make such cases a possibility and until a case of this kind goes to court one cannot be entirely sure how these regulations will be interpreted in practice. However, one can, on past experience, make an educated guess or two about the likely interpretation that will emerge once the judiciary begin to apply their trained legal minds to such questions, and I would suggest that such an interpretation will rest very heavily on the question of whether a particular service or activity belongs in the public or the private domain.
In balancing the respective rights in such a case; those of the hypothetical plaintiff, who has a ‘public right’ not to be subjected to discrimination, against those of the hypothetical defendent, who has a ‘private right’ to manifest their personal beliefs, one must first consider whether the matter at the heart of the complaint belongs to the public or private domain. If the matter is ‘public’ then the public rights of the complainant take precendence, if it is private, then the private rights of the defendent should win out. Going back to the example of the bed and breakfast, if such a service is generally available to the public, i.e. the owner takes bookings from individuals irrespective of their religious or other beliefs, then the service provided is public and a gay or lesbian couple who is refused a booking due to their sexuality has a valid (and enforcable) complaint irrespective of the fact that the B&B is also the owner’s private home – in effect the owner has placed that part of their home that they let as a B&B into the public domain. If, however, the owner only take bookings from individuals who are verifiably Christian – members of their own church/denomination – then that is essentially a private matter and one that belongs in the private domain – i.e. it would not generally be the business of the state, or the courts, to interfere in such a matter (although a court may take into account the doctrinal view of church/denomination to who access is restricted as an aide to understanding whether the B&B owners actions are consistant with its doctrinal beliefs).
To sum up my position, while I am certainly no friend of religion or religious belief, I do recognise both the right of individuals to hold such beliefs and to manifest those beliefs in the private domain – only when those beliefs and the actions that stem from them cross into the public domain is it right for the state (and the law) to intervene – quite when and in what circumstances the private/public rubicon is crossed is a complex matter, too complex to go into here.
The question of what is and isn’t in the public domain is central to the situation in Exeter, and to the position of other University Christian Unions around the country, like that in Birmingham, who’ve already been suspended by their ‘parent’ Student Union or threatened with suspension unless their comply with the Student Union’s own rules. And it is also something that the University of Exeter Students’ Guild either do not, or refuse to, understand – and its that I’ll be going on to consider after I’ve disposed of one more complete distraction, this being an article in Pink News that woefully misinterprets this whole situation.
A small group of Christian students at Exeter University are going to court to try to set a legal precedent about acceptance of gay rights.
The Christian Union has been prevented from using facilities at the university because they ban gay or lesbian students from joining their organisation…
…The Exeter students are taking their case to the High Court in what could be a key judgement on the right of student unions to impose acceptance of LGBT people on student societies.
What? Student unions have a ‘right’ to ‘impose acceptance of LGBT people on student societies’? Have student unions suddenly become a vehicle for social engineering?
The very idea that you can impose acceptance on anyone in such a manner is complete and utter rubbish. You might successfully compel an Evangelical Christian Union to admit gay and lesbian individuals to their meetings but is that going to change the actual beliefs of ‘conventional’ members of that group towards them when they have an absolute doctrinal belief that holds that homosexuality is a mortal sin? Don’t be stupid, of course not!
Exeter University Students’ Guild website has a statement which states, “Students felt that as students fund our societies and as our equal opportunities policy states, all activities should be open to all students.
“This is certainly not a debate regarding the beliefs of the society, it is one of equal opportunities.”
I’ll come back to this is more detail in a moment, but for now its worth noting that only 10% of the ECU’s funds come from the Student Guild, plus the ECU receives a measure of ‘in-kind’ assistance in terms of access to rooms, etc.
The assertion, here, by Pink News, that is about the acceptance of gay rights is a vacuous load of bollocks. Think about it for a second. What ‘rights’ are actually being asserted here? The rights of gay and lesbian individuals to join a doctrinally homophobic group who believe that their sexuality is a one-way ticket to hell?
Does that actually make any sense at all? No more than it would if the Nation of Islam were to take out a class-action lawsuit demanding the right to affiliate to the Ku Klux Klan?
No this is not about gay rights (and the actual reason given for the suspension of the ECU does not specifically reference their explicitly having excluded homosexuals from membership, only that many people would find it impossible to sign up to their doctrinal position) and it would be a monumental nuisance if the court case did become about that issue, as one way or another, a ruling made on that basis could have consequences far beyond the simple question of Christian Unions and Student Union Guilds.
Does common sense not intrude into this situation at all? Seemingly not…
In fact, as I intend to demonstrate, this whole issue isn’t about ‘gay rights’ at all, nor is it necessarily about access to funding from the Student’s Guild and if its about ‘religious liberty’ then its only in a marginal sense. What this is all really about is the boundaries between the public and private domain and the unnecessary enroachment beyond the rubicion of the private domain by a bunch of nannying busy-bodies who would be better served in minding their own business. It is an unnecessary, and from my own personal perspective, entirely unwelcome muddying of the waters of a public debate in which, due to the specious campaign by religious groups against the incoming Sexual Orientation Regulations, there desperately needs to be clarity.
Lets start with a very basic principle, the right to hold particular beliefs (whether religious or otherwise).
That is an inalienable right of all human beings, irrespective of whether one considers particular beliefs to be ill-founded, stupid, dangerous or just plain ridiculous. Speaking personally, a belief in god (and a belief that homosexuality is a sin) makes no more sense to me than the belief that the earth is flat and moves through the cosmos on an infinite tower of turtles, and when the occasion arises I will happily argue that point with considerable force and seek to persuade the ‘believer’ to alter their view of the world to one that I consider to be infinitely more rational. However, for all the manifest evidence that god does not exist, certainly not in the sense of the interventionist ‘sky father’ of the Abramahic religions, many people still believe in the existence of such a god and, more absurdly, that certain books contain the rules of living set out by such a god, which dictate precisely how they should view the world and live their individual lives.
And to believe that that is how the world is, is their absolute right – within their own private and personal domain.
It is not for me (or anyother individual), a Student’s Guild or the state for that matter to dictate absolutely the contents of the inside of someone’s head or enforce a particular set of beliefs on others – one can strive to educate, certainly, but one cannot compel, not in the private domain, unless one wishes to accept and act upon the concept of thought crime.
This is why the idea that any external body can enforce acceptance of homosexuality on those who consider it to be sinful, unnatural or repellant is an utter nonsense – you may be able to suppress such beliefs and limit their public manifestion but you can’t make those beliefs go away entirely. At best, all that can be achieved by such absolutist methods is that you drive such beliefs underground, where they’ll simply fester and become even more entrenched and intractable to reason and common sense. To censor in such an absolute fashion is to admit that you’ve lost the argument.
One cannot regulate private beliefs, however harmful one considers those beliefs to be, but when those beliefs manifest themselves in the public domain as actions then one can legitmately regulate those actions – but within limits.
To impose such regulation, whether in law, policy or simply by way of custom and practice, one must be sure both that the actions one is dealing with do legitmately operate within the public domain and, equally, that those actions are in some form harmful or injurious to a third party to an extent sufficient to merit their regulation (or even prohibition) when set against the rights of the believer to manifest their beliefs – and in this particular case I am not satisfied that either condition has been safely established, let alone both.
Let’s take the matter of harm, first – what actual or potential harm is being caused by the existence and presence of this group with the Students’ Guild..?
So far as I can see, none at all.
Irrespective of how you view this particular group and their doctrinal views, their mere existence as a group harms no one. While its certain possible that some may feel a little discomforted in knowing that such group does meet in facilities operated by the Students’ Guild, particularly in view of its all too obvious position on homosexuality, such discomfort is no more than the price one pays for living in a free, tolerant and pluralistic society. So long as this group and its members steer clear of actions which could be considered to constitute the harassment of other students then where’s the problem?
There isn’t one. And if such a problem did arise, the Guild would be justified only – at least initially – in seeking to regulate the public behavior of the group and its members and not what it does in the privacy of its own meetings.
Given the group’s position on homosexuality, one might reasonably place restrictions on its public activities, particularly in relation to the active preaching of some its beliefs to non-members, if that were to be done inappropriately, but that aside, there is no justification for a blanket suspension or expulsion of the group from the Students’ Guild.
What then of the Guild’s stated reasons for suspending this group; that its membership policy, which requires that all members sign up to its statement of its doctrinal views, violates the Guild’s policy on equal opportunities? Well, it would seem to me that the real issue here lies in the Guild’s failure to understand, properly, the concept of equal opportunities, as it might reasonably apply to a Student Union.
The Guild’s view is that all societies must be open to all students, which patent nonsense. Just a cursory glance at the Guild’s own list of societies shows that it has, like most, if not all, other local Student Unions, has the usual array of political societies, all of which, quite reasonably, will require that members espouse a particular political viewpoint – unless the Guild is seriously suggesting that, say, the Conservative group should be compelled to accept members of Labour Party into membership of that society, admit them to its private meetings and allow them to become committee members.
Many membership organisations, including student societies, are by their very nature exclusive in terms of their membership, because those societies exist to promote a particular view or set of opinions and values. Equality of opportunity is such cases does not rest in compelling such societies to accept in membership those who do not share their values or opinions but in ensuring that those who wish to come together to form a society that reflects their views and services their needs are free to do so, without hinderance from others.
This particular Christian society may, and almost certainly does, exclude individuals because of their sexuality – or rather because their sexuality makes it impossible for them to sign up to the society’s doctrinal position – but the correct solution to that is not to ban the society or compel it to accept members who don’t share its view and values but to ensure simply that there are alternatives for those who find themselves so excluded. That is the only reasonable position to take in this situation.
What the Students’ Guild also clearly do not understand is the nature of membership organisations. Even allowing for equal opportunites law, membership organisations are permitted, legally, to ‘discriminate’ in their rules of membership, provided they do so in reasonable fashion and the organisation, itself, exists specifically for the benefit of that group it defines, generally, as its eligible membership. It is perfect permissible, and legal, for organisations to be set up specifically from the benefit of a particular group or segment of society and to restrict membership of the organisation solely to that group. A gay and/or lesbian organisation can quite legally apply the rule that all of its members must be gay (or lesbian). And organisation set up specifically for the benefit of a particular ethnic group can limit membership only to those who come from that group – the only restriction here is that it cannot define its membership in terms of skin colour, so restricting membership to those who are ‘black’ or ‘white’ is unlawful, but restricting it to ‘African-Caribbean’, ‘Pakistani’ or even ‘Anglo-Saxon’ would be perfectly legal. And within the sphere of religion, it is perfectly permissible for groups to exist to promote a particular faith, or doctrinal position, that restrict membership solely to those who share that specific belief.
Both the common law and relevant statute law, much of which is covered by the Charities Acts, also recognises that membership organisations have rights both to regulate their own membership according to their constitutional rules and to meet and conduct their business, where necessary, in private. Membership meetings and committee meeting, in particular, are private meetings that take place within the private domain and, as such, a membership organisation is perfectly within its rights to exclude non-members from such meetings and, in non-members are admitted, to restrict their rights to address the meeting. Normal practice is such situations is that non-members may only address the meeting if specifically invited to do so by the Chair of the meeting.
The mere fact that this Christian Union excludes non-members from some, or even all of its meetings, and refuses non-members the right to speak without invitation, is of absolutely no consequence, for all that the Students’ Guild have tried to hold this up as evidence that they are not acting ‘properly’ in their opinion.
This is what I mean when I say that is case could have far reaching consequences beyond simply the matter of the Students’ Guild and Christian Union – a victory for the Students’ Guild could set a dangerous precendent that would bring about the end of single group membership organisations in any area that equality legislation currently applies – gay/lesbian groups could be compelled to admit heterosexual members, womens’ organisations required to admit men into membership, and organisations set up to benefit a specific ethnic group could have their membership opened up to all-comers.
Nowhere is the poverty of the Students’ Guild position better illustrated that in this statement of ‘Nine things you didn’t know…‘ or more accurately, ‘Nine completely irrelevant facts that we thing make us look good’, which amount to no more than a piss-poor propaganda effort:
Following misleading articles in the national press concerning the ECU’s threat of legal action against the University and Guild, X-Net wishes to clarify several issues surrounding the ECU.
Please, yes. Let’s clarify a few things here…
1. The ECU’s constitution prevents non-Evangelical Christians – including Catholics and Orthodox Christians – from being on their committee or speaking at meetings.
An individual may only hold an ECU committee position or speaking rights if they sign the society’s Doctrinal Basis, which contains evangelical beliefs such as “The Bible, as originally given, is the inspired and infallible Word of God. It is the supreme authority in all matters of belief and behaviour.”
Around 70% of Christians – including Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and non-evangelical Protestants – could not sign the Doctrinal Basis. For years, the society has blocked non-evangelical Christians from addressing the society, including a University Chaplain.
As previously noted – so fucking what? So 70% of Christians couldn’t sign up to the ECU’s doctrinal position… and the Catholic Church does not give Mass to non-Catholics, the Anglican Church does not give communion to non-Anglicans and Jehovahs Witness don’t celebrate Christmas.
This is completely irrelevant.
2. The student body voted in a democratic referendum to disallow the ECU from using the name “Christian Union”.
In October, a referendum was held to decide whether the ECU should be allowed to use the name “Christian Union”. The campaign in favour of the name remaining “ECU” won the referendum with a 55% majority, gaining 317 of the 582 votes cast.
The number of students voting was more than three times that of the ECU’s 176-strong membership. The recent legal threat against Exeter University and Students’ Guild demands that the society’s name become “Christian Union”, thus going against the result of a democratic referendum.
According to the University’s most recent statistics, the ‘student body’ of the University of Exeter comprises just short of 14,000 students, of whom less that 600 (about 4.5%) could be arsed to vote in what the Guild are laughably calling a democratic referendum.
The real outcome of this referendum is obvious – 95% of the student body don’t give two fucks what the Christian Union calls itself, and on that basis the correct democratic interpretation of this ‘vote’ is that the Students’ Guild has no mandate to interfere in the matter of the name of the Christian Union.
3. The ECU have stated that they don’t represent all Christians, and shouldn’t be required to do so.
During the recent referendum, the ECU said in an interview with X-Net News that “the ECU does not represent all Christians at Exeter University, and shouldn’t be required to do so.”
And your point is? Is the Catholic society required to represent all Catholics, or does it only represent its members.
As long as it is clear in its literature that the Christian Union is an evangelical group, then it doesn’t matter what it calls itself. Its not as if it actually is laying claim to the word ‘Christian’ as if it were some sort of trademark.
This is no more that prissy nitpicking.
4. Most Christian Unions based at universities and colleges nationwide have an exclusively evangelical outlook.
Most of the Christian Unions at universities and colleges nationwide affiliate to a national body called the UCCF, which labels itself as “UCCF: The Christian Unions”. All of these Christian Unions employ the same doctrinal basis, one that is exclusionary to non-evangelical Christians. The former name of the UCCF was the “Intervarsity Fellowship of Evangelical Unions”.
In December 2005, Richard Cunningham, the director of the UCCF, said in an interview: “UCCF Christian Unions are evangelical. We seek to unite students from different Christian traditions on the essentials of evangelical belief. This means that non-evangelicals may feel uncomfortable as we will talk about the uniqueness of Christ, or the infallibility of scripture, or Christ’s death as a propitiation to a holy god, etc. We insist that everyone who serves as a leader in the CU is able to sign our doctrinal basis agreeing to maintain the evangelical standing of the CU.”
The UCCF’s charity registration document states their objective as “to advance the evangelical Christian faith among students”.
Again, so what?
In fact, unlike the Students’ Guild, the Charity Commission has the statutory authority to require a registered charity to alter its name if it considers that its name is somehow misleading or misrepresents the purpose of the charity – and in the case of the UCCF is has taken no such action.
Does that not tell you something?
5. The ECU’s president agreed to respect the referendum result that the name of the society should remain “ECU”.
Following the referendum, the President of the ECU, James Harding, told the Exeter student newspaper Exeposé: “We will respect the decision of the student body that we should be called the ECU.”.
So, are people not allowed to change their mind? Irrelevant again.
6. The initial name change from CU to ECU was proposed by a Christian student.
The initial motion (Motion 14/05) was proposed at the 2006 Students’ Guild AGM by Ralph Olsson, an Orthodox Christian, following consultation with members of the Catholic and Methodist & Anglican Societies.
But not an member of the Christian Union.
Why should someone who is not a member of an organisation be permitted to interfere in its operation? Does that mean that members of the Socialist Society would be permitted to put forward a motion to change the name of the Conservative society and have that put to a ‘referendum’?
Of course not.
The fact that the proposer of the motion was a Christian is completely immaterial
7. The ECU are NOT being treated differently to other societies at the University.
There are seven religious societies at Exeter University – four Christian societies (CathSoc, MethAng, NOOMA, ECU), the Islamic Society, the Jewish Society, and the Buddhist Society.
Although the ECU claim that they are being ‘singled-out’, the other six religious societies do not breach any of the Guild’s equal opportunities rules: they are open for everyone to join, do not require committee members or speakers to hold particular beliefs, and hold democratic elections.
Now you have got to be fucking joking!
Are you so stupid that you haven’t figured out that all the other religious societies are merely paying lip service to you equal opportunities policy for the sake of a fucking quiet life, or is there really the possibility that a group of atheists would be allowed to join and then democratically take over the running of the Catholic Society. Are there any students at the University prepared to give this a shot to see what really happens in practice.
8. Emma Brewster is neither a student nor a staff member of Exeter University or the Students’ Guild.
Contrary to press releases, Emma Brewster is the South West Team Leader for the UCCF. She is neither a student nor a member of staff at Exeter University.
And? What possible relevance has this to anything?
9. The ECU have stated that they “do not need the Guild’s money”.
The ECU asserted during the first referendum hustings that their Guild funding constitutes just 10% of their income, and said that they “do not need the Guild’s money”.
The freezing of the ECU’s Guild privileges has not financially crippled the society, and has not stopped the society funding their own access to rooms. The ECU has continued to hold all meetings and socials in their regular premises, including rooms in University and Guild buildings.
Fair enough. As far as I’m concerned we shouldn’t be giving public many to any religious groups… but as you do provide financial and other support to other religious societies who are equally exclusive – even if you are too stupid to realise that – then you should treat the Christian Union the same as you do the other societies.
Of all the points above, point 7 really sums up the absurdity of the Students’ Guild’s position here. Do they seriously think that the mere fact that other religious societies are prepared to engage in a little intellectual dishonesty in order to get a quiet life and keep their perks really makes them any more inclusive, in practice.
Of course not, it just means they’re willing to swallow their beliefs for long enough to keep the morons on the Guild Executive happy before getting on with business as usual… and the Guild is just dumb enough to buy it.
If that weren’t enough, the Students’ Guild issued this whining press release in November, in response to a letter before action, noting that the Guild’s actions were, in the opinion of the Christian Union, in breach of the Human Rights Act.
“On Monday 20th November, senior members of the University and of the Students’ Guild met to receive legal advice on the situation regarding the letter presented to them by a student and member of the ECU.
The University has an “Official Complaints Procedure” for use in situations such as this. The final step of this procedure is for University Council to appoint an independent person to conduct an inquiry into the motions passed, etc and to issue recommendations.
Letters have been sent in reply to the student concerned (from the University and the Students’ Guild), who now has one week to respond.”
Well if its an independent opinion you want then here, have mine…
This is a farce from start to finish, and you (the Students’ Guild) have only yourselves to blame for that.
Stop behaving like a bunch of five year-olds, stop trying to hide behind the rule book, use a bit of common sense and try sorting this out like reasonable people for a change.
There, that was easy, wasn’t it?