Are university Christian groups under attack again?

The outcome of student controversy at Oxford will shock you

A Christian Union at the University of Oxford in the UK was reportedly banned from having a stall at a Freshers’ Fair (O-Week), after concerns that “the presence of the CU alone may alienate incoming students.”

The potential ban was handed down by representatives of the Junior Common Room committee at Oxford’s Balliol College – a residential college for students – that was hosting the Freshers’ Fair.

Oxford University student newspaper The Cherwell reported: “During the initial email exchange, Junior Common Room Vice President Freddy Potts, on behalf of the JCR Welfare Subcommittee, justified the ban by telling a CU representative: ‘We recognise the wonderful advantages in having CU representatives at the Fresher’s Fair, but are concerned that there is potential for harm to freshers who are already struggling to feel welcome in Oxford.'”

Christian Unions have found themselves on the wrong side of a university student union.

“‘Our sole concern is that the presence of the CU alone may alienate incoming students. This sort of alienation or micro-aggression is regularly dismissed as not important enough to report, especially when there is little to no indication that other students or committee members may empathise, and inevitably leads to further harm of the already most vulnerable and marginalised groups.’”

Eternity readers could be forgiven for thinking this was the latest in a series of cases where Christian Unions have found themselves on the wrong side of a university student union.

Last year, a five-year tussle between the University of Sydney Union (USU) and the Sydney University Evangelical Union (SUEU) reached an impasse. The USU unequivocally stated that the SUEU must remove the requirement for members to sign a faith-based declaration, and threatened them with deregistration from the clubs and societies programme if they failed to comply by 31 March, 2016.

At a meeting, student members of the SUEU voted 71-1 to not remove a clause from their constitution that requires students to sign a faith-based declaration in order to become members. On 21 March, then president of the SUEU George Bishop said they received an email from the USU saying, “the process of deregistration of the SUEU had been stalled, while the USU reconsidered its position.”

An official USU statement later read: “After long and thoughtful consultation with our religious communities on campus, the University of Sydney Union Board of Directors resolved at the April Board Meeting to amend the C&S Regulations to allow faith-based declarations as a condition of membership and Executives of faith-based clubs registered under the USU C&S program.”

In the United States, InterVarsity Fellowship (IVF) has been battling similar requirements for a number of years, with groups derecognised at Vanderbilt University as well as a number of other institutions. A 2014 decision to derecognise all IVF chapters at California State University was reversed in 2015.

“The Balliol JCR should not make judgements regarding the legitimacy of faith groups or religious expression.”

But in a positive twist, the Balliol College JCR has now admitted they made a mistake in banning Christian Union representatives from attending its Freshers’ Fair.

After a backlash by students as well as in local and national media, the JCR passed a motion condemning the Welfare Subcommittee for “barring the participation of specific faith-based organizations”.

According to The Telegraph, the JCR motion said the ban was a “violation of free speech, a violation of religious freedom, and sets dangerous precedents regarding the relationship between specific faiths and religious freedom.”

The motion states that “the Balliol JCR should not make judgements regarding the legitimacy of faith groups or religious expression,” and it prohibits the JCR from barring any official religious societies from participation in the Balliol Freshers’ Fair in future.

A representative from Balliol Christian Union declined to comment, saying that the situation had been “amicably resolved.”