Christian Unions suing Student Unions?

Having put quite a bit of time into unravelling the issues between the Students’ Union and Christian Union in Reading, I was dismayed to see The Times today reporting that some Christian Unions in the UK are considering legal action against the Student Unions on their campuses because:

Christian Unions claim that they are being singled out as a “soft target” by student associations because they refuse to allow non-Christians to address their meetings or sit on ruling committees.

While each situation is different as it rests on the constitutions and practices of the various bodies, the points put forth in the article do little to suggest that the CUs are being victimised. They are rather the most visible group on most campuses to not fit within most SUs’ equal opportunities policies or democratic and financial systems.

One of the key aggravating factors in our experience was the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship who often seemed to be the source of scare stories (which I never saw corroborated) of CUs that have been hijacked by other groups, and purported ‘legal advice’ about the relationships between CUs and SUs that massively misunderstood the issues we had found to be central. I’ve not had any contact with that organisation in a few years now, but at the time I couldn’t help but feel there were individuals within it who relished confrontation.

We (Martin did a lot of the work) tried to come to an understanding about the two bodies’ relationship on our campus and found that the main issues were not the expected hot buttons, but were more about whether the CU actually wanted to be an SU society, whether they were willing to hold open elections, and whether their financial management was compatible with ours.

That process allowed us to agree that for the CU membership in the SU was not vital, and that the SU could nevertheless provide some facilities to the CU because of the two organisations’ friendship (given certain provisos).

The press reports leading up to today’s news have certainly lacked clarity. Hopefully the CUs will step back from the brink and some new arrangements can be made that step round the current confrontation.

Update (4th Dec 2006): For clarity, at the time of these conversations I was a post-graduation sabbatical officer of RUSU and Martin was a non-sabbatical officer. I was never a member of the CU but attended a number of meetings and had many friends who were members. We have both now left the university.

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11 comments

  1. James,

    As the nearest UCCF staff to the arrangements established at Reading a few years back I have to say I was delighted with how things worked out there.

    Sadly in every organisation there are people who like confrontation – SUs and CUs alike… I don’t think that was ever a key factor at Reading, thankfully.

    Students Unions are varied and each situation is rather different hence the issues that have hit the press this year… hopefully a peaceful solution will result.

    Hope you’re well these days,

    Dave

  2. Thanks for the credit there, James.

    I think this is very sad for any number of reasons. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of this stems out of a lack of proper communication.

    At the risk of being a bit doomsday-ish: either way, this is bad news. If the CUs win it will create further strain between organisations. If the CUs lose (which, from my of course limited legal understanding, I strongly suspect they will) it will merely add to the (needless) paranoia voiced in the last paragraph of that Times article.

  3. Whilst no doubt there are some paranoid Christians out there I’m not sure that this is what’s going on here. Rather it seems to me that what I see every year (and I work with lots of students) is newly elected SU sabbattical officers throwing their weight around to follow an agenda of secular political correctness. Fortunately it only happens in one or two institutions every year – but it DOES happen in one or two places every year.

    The fact is that CUs in lots of places (Birmingham and Warwick to name but two) have put up with this (or similar things) in recent years and not threatened legal action. I think it’s probably about time someone did what Exeter CU are doing.

    You could look at it the other way from Martin – if the CU win it will establish the right of CUs to have an exclusive basis of membership so they can make sure that people wanting to be CU leaders are professing Christians (which is pretty important I reckon). On the other hand if the CU lose it will make obvious what it an undercurrent at present – that it is Christians who are singled out for discrimination by a minority of SUs and that the law does not protect that. Either of these would be a useful outcome in the sens that it would clarify where we stand.

  4. Andrew,

    As James said, the situation at Reading came down to systematic, rather than theological, issues and I think that was agreed on both sides. Ultimately I consider it to be correct that SUs deny funding to groups whose membership is exclusive, and more pertinently who are run by the appointed rather than the elected.

    I admit, though, that my view is formed from a perhaps very unusual example, and may not represent all. That said, I missed anything in the article which suggested to me the situation is much different elsewhere. What is different, I suspect, is that badmouthing has started and the respective Presidents have failed to encourage reconciliation.

    I feel that as a law graduate I must point out that any claim – starting with Exeter’s – is very unlikely to actually be on human rights grounds. The rhetoric in the article is all about rights and freedoms, but they are actually seeking judicial review. I can’t see how a human rights case could be brought, firstly because SUs and universities are not organs of the state (and it is the state that is required to uphold Convention rights) and secondly because I think it would require an utter judicial mangling of any of the relevant articles to find a breach of any of them (which I’ll go into if you wish, but it’ll be long!).

    CUs already have the right to do as you suggest, indeed most do, so that is not at issue. I do not agree that the exclusive membership is essential to ensure leadership is among professing Christians. Certainly at Reading, and elsewhere as far as I know, Muslim societies do not demand the same exclusivity in order to retain doctrinal purity, and I’d have thought it unarguable that they are in much greater danger of malign infiltration. And, to my mind, that demand of exclusivity is primarily what is setting CUs apart, not anyone’s attitude towards them.

  5. Andrew — Martin and I went into that process together, both as SU officers, and are very much in agreement on the position.

    I support what Martin has said in his comments, and I would also ask what exactly it is that happens in one or two places each year. If it is that SUs enforce the policies approved by their membership through democratic processes and CUs are the organizations which are the only group who want to be SU funded but are in contravention of those policies then _of course_ SUs will single them out, because they are the _single_ organization in that position.

    Certainly there are newly elected SU officers each year but that problem exists just as much in CUs as in SUs.

  6. Guys –

    I’m sorry to butt in, but I disagree with some of the analysis here. I graduated from Reading in 1999 and having saw it from both sides as I was an elected official of RUSU for about a year 1997-8 and also know amoungst CU circles.

    I am not sure at what point RUCU became disaffiliated with RUSU, but it was well before my time. If RUCU had been part of the RUSU it would have been the biggest society on campus.

    Generally there was little confrontation due to several factors. First, the chaplains tried to keep the CU sweet – not always an easy task, but they often had a good relationship with the CU leaders even if not with the members. Second, the CU built a good relationship with the university – so could use university buildings if not the student union. Third, the CU had friends within the SU even if they were not recognised.

    There were significant theological and sociolical dislikes within the SU of all things christian, but nothing could be done as the CU was not part of it.

    Anyway, the whole thing is nonsense. Nobody goes to a Squash team expecting to play rubgy, therefore every society disciminates.

  7. Thanks for your comments, Joe. You would have left just before I arrived.

    I totally agree that the CU had friends within the SU, and in many ways I was one of them during my tenure there. There was little direct confrontation, but there was an undercurrent of dissatisfaction for as long as I was there.

    Of course every society discriminates in that sense, but the questions here are more about financial accountability (which for RUSU is a legal responsibility, not just some arbitrary rule) and democratic processes. That’s quite a different thing from choosing which sport to play.

  8. Let it be said: in my experience of CUs, they are totally undemocratic, and often led by power-hungry self obsessed individuals.

    If the CU had been part of RUSU, it could not have operated as it did. I would have been at the forefront of opposition to this behaviour. I suspect this would have been difficult as the CU would have been a net contributor to general union funds.

    But as far as I see, the issues currently being discussed are solely about whether an organisation can a) call itself a ‘christian’ union when it excludes non-evangelicals and b) whether you can have a student organisation which excludes others.

    In these respects alone, the SU has no leg to stand on IMO. Any society should surely be able to call itself whatever it likes and to exclude/include on whatever basis it likes.

    FWIW, I think CUs are generally more trouble than they are worth and students would be much better off getting involved in a local – hopefully stable – church rather than playing spiritual power games with one another.

  9. That’s not quite the situation.

    The question is whether or not the SU should provide financial or logistical support to organizations that exclude others on religious grounds.

    They’re not stopping such groups from existing, all the language about “banning CUs” is hysterical nonsense, they’re simply not funding them.

    It’s further complicated by the fact that in many cases CUs are unwilling to allow the SU the financial oversight it is required by law to have over any affiliated groups.

  10. Graham Truesdale

    Regarding the issue about restricting membership to those with a particular viewpoint – do societies linked with political parties (Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat) not require that members be in sympathy with the principles of the party? Otherwise you would have the risk of entryism as practised by the Trotskyists.

    Graham

  11. I don’t remember the details of how all those societies are set up, but in Reading if they’d wanted to do that it could have become complicated.

    I think that in many ways the risk is just something people have to accept if they want to operate in the public sphere and enjoy the benefits of affiliation with the students’ union.

    That and there really aren’t that many trotskyist students around these days…