No bans on christian fundamentalists

James Turley reports on the bureaucratic attempt to ban Exeter university's christian student society

Sleepy Exeter made the national news last week when christian fundamentalist students threatened to take the student union to court for trying to stop them deciding for themselves who to allow into their society, the Evangelical Christian Union.

The Guild of Students has taken exception to the declaration the ECU asks recruits to sign, which includes the phrase, "In joining this union, I declare my faith in Jesus Christ as my saviour, my lord and my god." Guild president Jemma Percy said the requirement to sign the declaration meant "participation in the society was not open to every student". She added: "We have a duty to represent them and uphold equal opportunities."

In fact, the first shots in the dispute were fired by a rival faction within the christian camp, when non-evangelicals objected to the ECU's original name, 'Christian Union'. According to the leader of the anti-evangelical campaign, Tim Paulden, the society had "deceptively marketed itself as the 'Christian Union', while systematically silencing and discriminating against christians who are not evangelical". After the guild stepped in and unilaterally added the 'Evangelical' prefix, a referendum was held last month in which students voted by a narrow majority to reject ECU attempts to re-abbreviate their title.

Emboldened by this, the guild council froze their accounts and removed all privileges so it could conduct an equal opportunities "audit" - the ECU is technically bound by the equal-ops policy, but you do not tend to get many muslims, Jews, atheists or agnostics wanting to join, for some unknown reason. It is true that not many female students are elected as ECU officers and it is also quite possible that there might be a better club to join if you happen to be gay ...

There is no denying the unpleasant character of the ECU. The group is one of the most powerful on campus - partly due to the deep pockets of the national evangelical umbrella group, the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (allowing the ECU to run the flashiest freshers week events, coffee mornings, film screenings and so forth), and partly due to the (let's face it) overwhelmingly Tory character of Exeter's student body. Many liberal christians, in Exeter and elsewhere, are by turns embarrassed and worried by the evangelicals' domination of on-campus faith.

To be sure, communists oppose the reactionary, anti-working class brand of mumbo-jumbo that ECU propagates. However, concerns must be raised at the implications of the guild's decisions. The dispute over the society's name is mostly hot air. Whatever they call themselves, they make only the most cursory and transparent efforts to hide the nature of their beliefs. But at least the forced name change was ratified by a referendum of the student body.

The same cannot be said of the equal-ops witch-hunt. However reactionary a person's or organisation's views, it is a matter of basic common sense not to seek bureaucratic bans in order to suppress them. This is not out of fondness for christian fundamentalists, but is a matter of survival: if they can persecute evangelicals, they can persecute communists and socialists.

It is worth noting that the only other group to fall foul of the guild bureaucracy recently was Student Respect, which was at first denied affiliation - ostensibly on the grounds that it was too similar to (the Socialist Party's) Socialist Students, but also involving similar 'equal ops' concerns centred on 'islamist activists'.

The equal opportunities policy is worth looking at more closely - it nominally protects people regardless of "inappropriate distinctions", such as "political or religious beliefs". Certainly, this is a very positive and necessary clause when applied to, say, the university's employment policy, to stop it from deliberately firing leftists (or muslims, gays or anyone else). If, however, it is used in this way - ie, to interfere in the autonomous self-organisation of students (and to side with liberal christians) - it could act as an effective clamp on any legitimate voice.

For example, Communist Students, strangely enough, demands that all who wish to join should be - er - communists, and not Labourites, Liberal Democrats, Tories or BNP supporters. Is this 'discriminatory'? Of course. But every student association must have the right to set its own rules and membership requirements, provided these do not actively cause harm.

To allow the guild (with the connivance of the university authorities) to decide which groups are 'discriminating' is to give it the power to discriminate - in an arbitrary, politically biased and unaccountable way. As an incensed rightwinger known only as "Brutus Green" put it in a surprisingly apposite letter to the Exeter student paper Exepose, the thoroughly liberal equal-ops policy is "neutral only if one happens to share precisely those liberal politics" (November 6).

We communists are totally opposed to bureaucratic bans and proscriptions. We combat reactionary ideas, including those of religious fundamentalism, through democratic, working class methods, not through the bureaucratic use of 'equal opportunities'.