If you haven’t yet heard, there’s a storm brewing at Sydney University.
The ‘Honi Soit’ campus newspaper reports :
The University of Sydney Union (USU) has threatened to deregister the Sydney University Evangelical Union (EU) from the Clubs & Societies program over the latter’s requirement that all members must make a declaration of faith in Jesus Christ.
That’s right: a Christian group, whose primary aim is to further the Christian message, can no longer require its voting members or executive to be (wait for it) Christian.
If you think the Student Union has lost the plot, you’re not alone.
So what’s going on?
1) Freedom of Association Has Gone AWOL
This most basic freedom is misunderstood
Whilst my Aussie school friends were sleeping in on Saturdays, my brothers and I, being first generation Hungarians, had the joy of getting up early and going to Saturday ‘Wog School’ (to better learn our native tongue).
And then after ‘Wog School’, we’d go to Hungarian Scouts.
But here’s the thing: if you wanted to be part of Hungarian Scouts, you needed to be…Hungarian. To use the lingo of today, we ‘discriminated against’, we ‘excluded’ people based on their race, i.e. who weren’t Hungarian.
Was that ever controversial with non-Hungarians? Of course not.
Because everybody understood that Hungarians (and every other migrant group under the Australian sun) have the right to meet together as a migrant community for the purpose of furthering our culture.
This right, this freedom to meet together as a distinct community for a common purpose, whether it be racial or religious, is known as ‘freedom of association‘. It’s enshrined in International Law (to which the Australian government is a signatory).
And just as migrant groups have enjoyed this freedom, so too have religious groups, like the EU at Sydney University.
Until now: at Sydney Uni, the times, they are’a changin’.
But why is that?
2) When ‘Discrimination’ is All Bad
Law Professor Neil Foster describes how there’s been a change in the definition of ‘discrimination’ over the last few years:
[T]here has been a subtle shift in anti-discrimination thought, from the basic premise that people ought not to be denied access to, or participation in, public goods such as work or access to facilities, on account of irrelevant characteristics;
I.e. you’d be discriminating (unlawfully) if you denied people access to public shops, and other public services, because of some irrelevant characteristic (e.g. their race).
But now the definition has changed. Professor Foster continues:
[Discrimination now means] the mere act of treating one person differently from another person, [which] somehow creates a “status harm” which demeans the differently treated person and attacks their “dignity”.
So by this new definition:
- a Hungarian Scout group would be attacking the dignity of a non-Hungarian by barring them from joining;
- a university Christian group would be attacking the dignity of non-Christians by preventing them from becoming (as in the EU’s case) voting members of the group.
That’s a radical redefinition, which already has big implications for freedom of association: just ask the EU.
So how are we to think of this as Christians?
3) It’s Not Just a Christian Issue
Redefining ‘Discrimination’ will be bad for everyone
Although the EU is in the firing line right now, attacking freedom of association will have severe repercussions across society.
Atheist columnist Brendan O’Neill writes:
If ruling bodies, whether the state or a student union that wields power on campus, can use pressure or threats to make private associations rewrite their constitutions…then we enter into very dark territory indeed. We arrive at a situation where the authorities can dictate whom we may link up with and what we may believe [emphasis added]
Whilst this fiasco is only happening at universities (not minimising the pain the EU is facing), what happens at university rarely stays at university.
4) Christians should be concerned
Not ‘only’ for the sake of the gospel, but for the sake of non-Christian neighbours
The 20th century saw the rise of governments that were only too happy to restrict freedom of association within their societies. This meant disaster not just for Churches and Christians (although they often copped it first), but for all of society.
By way of example, Michael Jensen points out the harm that would come if freedom of association was compromised for indigenous people:
Imagine if an indigenous campus group were forced to admit non-indigenous members…how hurtful it would be to their identity. I can’t simply declare myself to be indigenous and so demand membership in their society without doing harm to that identity.
And so, out of love for our neighbour (whether Christian or not), Christians should be the first to defend and uphold this basic freedom.
Is the Writing On the Wall?
A famous man once said it’s very hard to make predictions, especially about the future.
But more than likely this redefinition of ‘discrimination’ will lead to further erosions of the freedom of association. Beginning with, but not ending with, religious organisations.
So what are your thoughts? Please feel free to leave a comment below.