Freedoms at risk over Sydney University faith group row

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Photo: e X p o s e / Shutterstock.com
Photo: e X p o s e / Shutterstock.com

You would have seen reports in this and other newspapers about a stand-off at the University of Sydney.

The Clubs and Societies Office of the University of Sydney Union (USU) is responsible for the registration, re-registration and deregistration of university clubs and societies. In order to be a registered club or society on campus, a club or society needs to comply with the Clubs and Societies principles, including one requiring membership to be equally accessible to all union members.

The USU has taken umbrage at the requirement of faith-based groups that members make a declaration of faith in order to be elected to an executive position, arguing that it offends principles of inclusivity.

To be clear, you do not have to be a member to participate in activities of a club or society, but membership is necessary to serve in a position of leadership. So what is really in dispute is whether a person who does not share the faith of the society should be able to be elected to run it.

It seems like a no-brainer that the leaders of a Christian society should – at a minimum – believe that Jesus is the Christ, but this appears to run against the overriding principle of inclusivity. These faith-based groups are being threatened with deregistration if they do not comply with the “inclusivity” requirement.

But the raison d’être for a club or society is so that people can gather in groups according to their beliefs, interests or hobbies?

Eliminating distinctions between groups does not make them more inclusive; it just makes them redundant.

Some people have suggested that the groups should just accept deregistration and continue to operate on campus informally. Registration affords a club or society formal status, certain abilities to advertise and access university facilities, and some university funding, but students are not prohibited from gathering together unofficially. And with university chaplaincies unaffected by these pressures (it is only the student-led societies which are being threatened), the practical difference for the students would be minimal.

Plus, it would prove that it will take more than a deregistration to stop the proclamation of the Gospel. The Church has faced bigger threats to its liberty and survived.

While all of this is true, I don’t think the faith-based groups should concede any ground here. I think they must keep fighting. They must keep fighting because to do otherwise might appear to give even tacit acceptance of the USU’s illogical and irrational stance. And they must keep fighting because we are going to be facing so many more threats to freedom of religion in the coming months and years, either at law or by others (such as USU) who do not need legislative backing to force their versions of “equality” and “inclusiveness” upon the rest of us.

Look at what is happening in the United States at the moment.

Last month a law was passed in North Carolina saying that in government-controlled public toilet facilities (in buildings or otherwise), a person who is legally a male must use the male bathroom and a person who is legally a female must use the female bathroom.

Without this law, it is highly possible that a man – whether he identified as transgender or not – could use a female public toilet and anyone who tried to suggest otherwise was being discriminatory.

So, if a woman was using a public toilet late at night and a man walked in, she would no longer be permitted to call security because expressing any fear for her safety in that circumstance could leave her open to being sued under anti-discrimination laws.

While it is disappointing that there is a need to legislate common sense, the North Carolina law seems to make sense. Or so you would think.

But in a demonstration of the illogical and irrational pursuit of “inclusiveness”, Paypal has cancelled plans to build a new operation in that state, depriving it of 400 jobs and millions of dollars in investment, Bruce Springsteen has cancelled his upcoming concert, composer Stephen Schwartz has refused to allow his musical Wicked to be performed there and two TV networks have decided no programs will be filmed there. Others are joining the queue to pressure the people of North Carolina into lobbying their lawmakers for change, lest their economy be punished.

Make no mistake, these companies and individuals are trying to buy a political result. These “champions of democracy” are trying to use their financial power to overthrow democracy and govern through coercion. It’s what I call the dictatorship of capitalism, where those who do not like a decision abandon discourse, reasoned argument and rational debate for a “might makes right” mentality.

It is an abhorrent idea, and we must reject it.

So while the University of Sydney standoff on one level is only about a limited amount of university funding and some formal campus recognition – and we can be confident that the spreading of the Gospel on campus will continue unabated regardless of the USU’s decision – it must be resisted because we need to be clear that those with the money do not get to pursue irrational and illogical ideologies at the expense of the freedoms of others.