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Bishops support students in fight for religious freedom

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24th November 2006

 

Christian students receive show of support

 

Leading Senior Bishops today pledged their support to several Christian Unions across the country in their fight to meet freely at their respective Universities and proclaim Biblical truth.  The Anglican bishops of Winchester, Rochester, Chester, Southwell and Nottingham, Lichfield, Dover and Willesden, together with the Roman Catholic Church's lead Bishop on Higher Education, are joined as signatories by academics and representatives from national Christian organisations.  Together they claim the Student Guilds/Associations, in Exeter, Birmingham and Edinburgh in particular, have changed their anti-discrimination provisions to discriminate against Christian students.


In an open letter to The Times, ten leading Bishops gave their support to the Christian Unions stating that they are facing “considerable opposition and discrimination of their rights of freedom of expression, freedom of belief and freedom of association.” Christian Unions at Exeter, Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt and Birmingham have all been either disaffiliated from their Student Union bodies, or, in the case of Edinburgh University have been prevented from teaching a Christian course on University facilities.


The letter states, “…university student guilds and associations have a responsibility to ensure that official societies are run in a proper and lawful manner. However this does not give them, or anyone else, the right to restrict or change the essential beliefs of those societies, or impose as leaders people who do not share those core beliefs.”


In Exeter University, the Christian Union has been forced to change its name to Evangelical Christian Union, and has been disaffiliated from the Guild of students with all the privileges being withheld from them, including the booking of rooms. This name change developed after one student wrote to complain to the Guild of Students to state that he did not feel that the Christian Union was inclusive of all Christians, this was specifically due to the fact that any student wishing to become a member of the Christian Union would have to sign a declaration of belief. As such, the students sent a letter to the University authorities stating that they had sought legal advice and were ready to commence legal proceedings within 14 days unless the University authorities resolved the issue. This was also true of students at the Christian Union at Birmingham University.


In Scotland, both Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt Christian Unions have faced opposition from their respective student associations. In Edinburgh University, the Christian Union had sought to teach the “Pure” Course on University facilities. This course promotes biblical teaching on sex and specifically that Christians should exercise sexual restraint until marriage. The Christian Union was criticised for teaching that the bible states that homosexuals must remain celibate. The course was criticised for being homophobic. Accordingly, the Christian Union was banned by the University authorities from teaching this course on University facilities. At Heriot-Watt University, the Christian Union is not being permitted to affiliate with the Student Association because it requires all members to sign a statement of faith.


This letter follows on from extensive media coverage on this issue, and all four Christian Unions have sought legal advice on this matter, and understand that they have a strong legal case. Their case is based on an alleged abuse of section 43 of the Education Act which imposes on universities obligations to safeguard the lawful exercise of freedom of speech. The cases are also based on breaches of articles 9, 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (as incorporated by the Human Rights Act 1998).  These articles guarantee freedom of religion, association and expressive association.

This letter represents the view of many Christians in this country having learned of the treatment of these Christian Unions.


A full copy of the letter is below:


Letter To The Times

22 November 2006


Dear Sir


Your front page story, Students sue over Christian rights at colleges (November 18, 2006), clearly shows how Christian students at many of our universities are facing considerable opposition and discrimination in violation of their rights of freedom of expression, freedom of belief and freedom of association.


In recent times, some Student Guilds, in Exeter, Birmingham and Edinburgh in particular, have changed their anti-discrimination provisions to discriminate against Christian students. We believe this to be intolerant and unlawful, and that the Christian Unions currently suspended by the Student Guilds/Unions/Associations should be re-instated with full society rights forthwith.


Of course university Student Guilds/Unions have a responsibility to ensure that official societies are run in a proper and lawful manner.  However, this does not give them, or anyone else, the right to restrict or change the essential beliefs of those societies, or impose as leaders people who do not share those core beliefs. Christian Union meetings and events are open to all students to attend.  In fact, as a faith-sharing organisation, CUs specifically invite people who do not share the Christian faith to attend their meetings.  Therefore there is no restriction imposed on who can and who cannot join with the CU. 


However, the Executive Committee of CUs act rather like charity trustees, and as such, they are responsible for two things: firstly, that funds donated to the CU are only used to further the stated objects, and secondly, that the object of the Union, the proclamation of the Christian gospel (as understood by millions of orthodox Christians around the world), is advanced.


It would therefore be inappropriate for anyone who does not agree with the aims, objectives and beliefs to be Executive Committee members, although it would be totally in order for them to attend CU events, Bible studies, discussion groups or missions, and put forward their views with conviction and passion. Thus the only restrictions limit the right to amend the constitution and select leaders to those who can affirm the core beliefs of the society.


Yours faithfully

The Rt Revd Michael Scott-Joynt

Bishop of Winchester

The Rt Revd Michael Nazir-Ali

Bishop of Rochester

The Rt Revd Peter Forster

Bishop of Chester

The Rt Rev George Cassidy

Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham

The Rt Revd Jonathan Gledhill

Bishop of Lichfield

The Rt Revd Stephen Venner

Bishop of Dover

The Rt Revd Pete Broadbent

Bishop of Willesden

The Rt Revd Crispian Hollis

Roman Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth and lead Bishop of Higher Education

Canon Dr Christina Baxter, CBE

Chairman of the House of Laity, Church of England General Synod

Professor Nigel M. de S. Cameron

Centre for Bioethics and Public Policy, London

Professor John Wyatt

Professor of Neonatal Paediatrics, University College London

Dr Don Horrocks

Head of Public Affairs, Evangelical Alliance

Andrea Minichiello Williams

Public Policy Officer, Lawyers Christian Fellowship

Mr Peter Saunders
General Secretary, Christian Medical Fellowship
The Revd Richard Cunningham

Chief Executive Officer, UCCF

Dr Peter May

Chairman, Universities & Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF)


Please click on the link below for more information on The Times article



Please continue to pray for these students that God will strengthen them at this time and that His name will be glorified.


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