The University of Sydney Union (USU) has temporarily stalled its threat to deregister the Sydney University Evangelical Union (EU) over a requirement in its constitution that joining members sign a profession of faith in Christ.
Claiming a current membership of around 600, the EU has operated at the university since the 1930s.
After a five-year exchange between the USU and the EU on the matter, the USU decided to change its society rules in November, prohibiting societies from proscribing their membership according to “race, gender, age, sexuality, ability, religious beliefs or cultural background”.
It issued an ultimatum to the EU on 17 February, requiring the society to remove the article from its constitution by 31 March or face deregistration.
But in a surprise move it then sent an email to EU president George Bishop on 21 March saying it had stalled a move to deregister the group while the union reconsidered its position.
USU president Alisha Aitken-Radburn confirmed to student newspaper Honi Soit that the USU had contacted the EU after having been approached by the university. The university has appointed an independent legal service to investigate the matter, and will hear submissions from both the USU and the EU before presenting its findings on 1 April at a USU board meeting.
Speaking to The Catholic Weekly on 24 March, Mr Bishop said that while the temporary stay was welcome, he’d be “happier if the issue was resolved” once and for all. “I’m glad the board is reconsidering its position, particularly given some strong submissions which we have made to them,” Mr Bishop said. “It would not be a favourable outcome if the EU was deregistered but we do believe very strongly that maintaining faith-based membership is necessary to the identity of a group as a Christian group.” (When contacted by The Catholic Weekly on 24 March, the USU said that it would not be commenting on the matter in lieu of its own, forthcoming statement.)
An extraordinary meeting of the EU on 23 March voted 71-1 to reject a proposed change to its constitution which would have removed the requirement that new members sign a faith-based declaration.
“The meeting yesterday gives the executive a fairly clear mandate to advocate about this issue,” he said. “It is hard to say what is going through the USU board’s mind, but I think God is acting sovereignly in this issue, and I pray that God’s Will will continue to do so”. Mr Bishop was philosophical when asked why he thought the USU had changed its society rules last year.
“I’d only be speculating as to why. I think that, at best, the union wants to employ a wide-ranging policy of anti-discrimination – so perhaps they are coming from a good place, in that way. “However, the EU believes that perhaps the application of such a principle has gone a bit too far and in doing so has infringed on the idea of freedom of association in this case.”
Ms Aitken-Radburn told Honi Soit that “the USU has never intended to be antagonistic towards the EU” and had not been motivated by malicious or discriminatory intentions.
She said the USU had been “demonised” by mainstream media and that its decisions “have been guided by constitutions and regulations”.
The Catholic Weekly understands that several of the 17 faith-based societies registered with the USU met for discussions earlier in the week, prior to USU’s email to Mr Bishop. The Catholic student society, the Catholic Society of St Peter, which is also registered with the USU, declined the opportunity to comment for this article.