Time for a new way of funding religious societies

With the controversy over Nadia Eweida’s cross having now led to British Airways reviewing their policy on staff uniforms and religious jewellery, a related controversy, over funding of student religious societies, continues to make headlines, as in this letter in today’s Times from, among others, several senior Anglican bishops (see this article in the paper commenting on the issue). The issue is that Christian Unions have been suspended from student union affiliation for having policies which break union equality rules. (More: Ruth Gledhill, Guardian Mortarboard.)

My experience of student unions is really confined to my time at Aberystwyth in the mid-1990s; the Guild (as student union organisations are often called) was generally dominated by a mixture of Welsh nationalists and socialists. While religious societies existed, it did not appear that they were union-affiliated; Guild politics were very left-wing, pro-feminist and pro-gay. The Christian Union had been removed from Guild affiliation in the year before I arrived (for rather more than simply having non-egalitarian policies, so I heard), and the Islamic society was quiet if not non-existent. It appeared that the vast majority of Aberystwyth’s Muslims were foreign students, particularly from Malaysia and Nigeria.

Most students are not interested in union politics; they only go to the union for a night out (and many at Aberystwyth did not, preferring one of the town’s many bars and pubs) or when they really need to use the student welfare facilities. General meetings had a quorum of 70 for policy motions (100 for a change to the Constitution), out of a student body of about 6,000. For a common policy motion you only needed a simple majority of that (36 out of 70, and that’s if nobody abstained), which obviously means that a motion could be passed which could be very unrepresentative of the general opinion or wishes of the student body. Many, if not all, unions have very stringent “equal opportunities” policies and fund the activities of what are known as liberation campaigns. If you are a union officer and you make a comment which could be interpreted as sexist or homophobic, you could be forced out or expected to undergo diversity training.

Student unions are, however, recipients of state funding - students do not pay anything to join, and the National Union of Students actually derives its funding from affiliation fees paid by unions. As such, both are restricted in what they can do; they cannot, for example, lobby for changes in the law unrelated to student interests. The money they dole out to students is taxpayers’, and nowadays tuition fee payers’, money. The people who pass equal opportunities policies at union meetings are not the people who fund these unions: they are paid for out of college funds.

If this money is used to fund student hobby activity - whether it’s academic societies, the conservation volunteers, the swimming society or the model train society - I fail to see why it should not support religious societies as well. It’s a well-known fact that every major religion has conservative stances on private and public morality, advocates traditional roles for women and disapproves of homosexuality, ideas that the atheist or otherwise anti-religious union hack politicians may not share, but it does not give them the right to disadvantage them by withholding their supply of public funding. Some people would rather go to a priest or imam to discuss their personal issues than go to a union official or counsellor. And some people, including some students, have moral stances which conflict with those of the Guild and the 36 people who passed its “free abortion on demand and no compromise” policy.

I suggest that funding for religious societies in the UK be made available from college funds on the condition that, while they may have policies which conflict with union equality policy, they do not incite hatred or incite their members to act on these policies to anyone’s annoyance or harrassment. If unions are unwilling to introduce such an arrangement, the colleges should have religious societies boards, which allocates funding and regulates the societies themselves.

There is, incidentally, a perfectly good reason for such societies to have rules about who may vote in society meetings and elections: it is to keep the societies’ activities within the purposes of those who set it up and to prevent entryism and infiltration. If the society allowed any person who joined, regardless of religion, to vote on matters of union activity and policy, outsiders could curtail or distort the activities of the society to their own ends. It could lead to an organisation having regular coups, with the committee changed radically from one season to another, resulting in the society’s library being purged of material unwanted by the new management even if it was valuable to a large section of the society’s membership. Such coups could be the work of people hostile to the religion itself, to religion generally, or of sectarian elements. The bottom line is that, to prevent such things happening, you need different membership criteria for the Islamic society than for the model train society.

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