Andrea Williams from the Lawyers Christian Fellowship reports on Birmingham Universities Guild of Students decision to de-recognise & freeze the accounts of the evangelical CU.

Andrea Williams
Andrea Williams

BIRMINGHAM University's Christian Union has been banned from using Student Union Guild rooms and facilities, and has had its bank accounts frozen by Guild authorities after refusing to make politically-correct changes to their charitable constitution on religious grounds.

The Students Union at Birmingham University wanted to impose one of their own leaders onto the CU executive, open membership to people of all faiths and beliefs and instructed the Christian fellowship to change its constitution from "men and women" to "people" to make it more inclusive for transsexual/transgender persons to become members.

When members of the CU tried to book rooms with the Guild after the summer break for normal CU activities, they were told the Guild couldn't accommodate them [because the CU was involved in too many evangelistic activities.]

Then, when Christians in Sport (whose high profile supporters include Olympic Gold Medallists Jonathan Edwards) attempted to book a room in the CU's name, the Guild insisted on checking the CUs constitution. The Guild objected to many clauses, even though the constitution has been consistent for many years, and its polices are not a new issue for the Guild. The CU has been operating at Birmingham University for the past 76 years, and currently has well over a hundred people attending the CU's meetings.

Andy Weatherley, CU staff worker in Birmingham, said: "The Guild insists our constitution must be amended to include 'mandatory clauses', insisting more control and more intrusion by the Guild and open membership to those who would not call themselves Christians.

"As a Christian Union, we restrict membership to only those people who profess faith in Jesus Christ, [and that leadership positions are also restricted to the same criteria and the beliefs outlined in the University and College's Christian Fellowship Doctrinal Basis]. It is a fundamental right of any organisation to be able to include in its membership only those who abide by the ethos and focus of the organisation. We believe this to be true for all organisations within the Student Union, not just religious or ethnic ones. We are not a special interest group there to attract people with similar interest but a Union of Christians. Whilst our meetings are open to all people, believers and unbelievers when it come to being a voting member or leader of the Christian Union we feel it is perfectly respectable to restrict access to people who call themselves Christians.

The Vice Chancellors report "Extremism and intolerance on Campus", advises Universities "some clubs of societies to have restricted eligibility, say on religious or nationality grounds. Otherwise, it could be open to a group hostile to the club or society to join and take it over in a way that would be quite wrong. But we urge care in this area."

Despite the CU agreeing to consider some re-drafting of their constitution and to offer a re-draft to the Guild at their mid-January meeting, the CU were suspended from booking rooms for a week-long Christian Awareness event at the end of January named "Truth". The Guild has de-recognised the Christian Union and frozen its bank account, including money donated by the public and churches to be used for Christian work in the university. The "Truth" week will only now go ahead because of the good grace offered by the university allowing the CU to place a marquee on a central location on campus.

Birmingham Christian Union has instructed solicitors, who have advised the Guild that unless funds are returned, and a democratic way forward can be found, they have been instructed to issue court proceeds against them.

Birmingham University Christian Union is affiliated to UCCF, which has over 77 years experience of working with Christians at universities and colleges of higher and further education throughout the UK.

Pod Bhogal, its communications director said: "In all our years of working with hundreds of HE establishments, this action by Birmingham's Guild is unique. We support the Birmingham CU 100 per cent and will back them in standing up for their rights, and the democratic rights of every student grouping in the university to be able to constitute themselves and to peruse any lawful aims and objectives in a free society. We would not dream of telling a Muslim student group how to elect their leaders or who could or could not become a member, that's entirely a matter to them, based on their own faith principles, the same applies to a CU."

In response, Birmingham University has put out this statement:

'The University's Charter, and general law, requires the University not to discriminate on the grounds of religion and the University is proud of the fact that its Charter was one of the first in the Country to include an anti-discriminatory clause.

The University understands that the BUECU is a society within the Guild of Students. As such it receives financial support from the members of the Guild and has the ability to use the Guild premises for its society events. The Guild's Constitution requires all such societies to be open to all Guild members. The Guild has over 158 different societies, thirteen of which are faith-based and include, for instance, six Christian based groups as well as the Hindu, Jewish and Islamic Societies.

We understand at the moment that the BUECU have not yet exhausted the internal procedures within the Guild, either to challenge their requirements for membership, or to suggest an amendment to the Constitution.'

The Guild of Students have said, 'All societies of the Guild of Students are funded and supported by students, the organisation's membership. It is important that all 158 societies are open to all members - their funders. Under the 1994 Education Act, the Guild and its affiliates must ensure "the procedure for allocating resources to groups or clubs should be fair" and that the organisation "operates in a fair and democratic manner."

After a routine review of all affiliated societies' constitutions, a number of changes needed to be made to comply with the 1994 Education Act. The Guild entered discussions with all of these societies to ensure that they had adequate numbers of members, that committees had been elected and that the societies were fully compliant both with the Guild constitution and with the 1994 Education Act. After a lengthy dialogue, starting in September 2005, the Evangelical Christian Union were "de-recognised" on 8th December 2005 because they do not guarantee that their officers and committee are democratically elected and because their membership is not open to all students.'

In accordance with the Guild's standard procedures, which apply to all affiliated societies, the accounts of ECU were frozen, with the intention that any money will be returned to donors The Guild fully intends to honour any financial commitments made before the group was derecognised. The Guild is approaching the group about transferring funds to the national organisation - the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship - to be spent on University of Birmingham students.

Original press release written by LCF. Birmingham University response provided by the Director of Communications at Birmingham University. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.