Maybe “Universities UK” needs educating?

By LSS member Sadikur Rahman *

Another busy week. It’s hard to keep up. It seems every bit of news involving religion these days has some interaction with the law; so much so that it is even more important that the LSS and its members continue to represent secular views on the law.

Starting with the good news, the Supreme Court handed down its judgment on the case of the Christian hoteliers who had refused a gay couple permission to use a room in their hotel. In a very positive judgement the Supreme Court (a five-judge panel) found against the hoteliers, making it absolutely clear that any discrimination against a person because of their sexual orientation is unlawful even if it is due to a ‘sincerely held religious belief’. Here is the full judgment.

Baroness Hale gave the lead judgment, which is well worth reading for anyone looking for ammunition against religious encroachment on the law. And have a look at this funny reaction from Mike Judge of the Christian Institute, who said:

“In particular, we are deeply troubled by the remarks of Lady Hale, who says rulings by European judges means gay rights are almost untouchable”

Hear, hear! Gay rights should be untouchable.

The debate on the face veil/niqab is again the subject of court litigation, this time in France. The ban on the full face veil is being challenged by a French citizen in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, whilst at the same time a French court has found that a private nursery was within its rights to sack an employee for wearing the headscarf, because it had a public ethos.

I have said in other blogs that I personally would not favour a public ban in the UK, but as far as the ECHR is concerned, it is likely the arguments will turn on how much a ‘margin of appreciation’ a country has when prohibiting a qualified right such as the right to free expression.  I am beginning to be persuaded that a public ban might be needed, particularly having read the arguments in favour of a ban. But for the time being I have to say I am still undecided on this one.

The above news stories are to some extent positive since they reduce the encroachment of religious views on the law. But one must wonder what is going on at British educational establishments these days. They seem to have completely lost the proverbial plot.

A few months ago a college in Birmingham backed down over its decision to ban the full face veil for security reasons (see here). Then the LSE/LSE Students Union forcibly made members of the LSE Students Union Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (ASH) remove their “Jesus and Mo” t-shirts as the Students Union thought it would offend Muslims (see here and here). Now universities have gone one step further in their desire to appease radical religious groups.

“Universities UK”, which proudly states on its website that its 132 members include virtually all the universities in the UK and some colleges of higher education, this week produced guidance effectively stating that segregation between men and women is acceptable if visiting speakers require it, because apparently there would be no discrimination on the basis men and women would be segregated equally. The mind boggles.

This piece in the Independent makes the obvious argument that segregation never leads to equality. As lawyers we should always recall famous causes such as American civil rights cases which said that “Separate but Equal” never works in practice. It will always mean the less powerful will be discriminated against.

What is this organisation, Universities UK, thinking? And apparently this guidance was produced after consultation with the Student Unions. They seem to think that freedom of speech would be denied if speakers who want segregated seating could not come to the universities. Why can’t they still come and speak from behind a screen if the sight of women, or the sight of women mixing with men, offends them so much? And if Islamic speakers and Universities UK are so concerned about free speech and free expression on campuses, why aren’t they supporting the LSESU ASH students in their “Jesus and Mo” controversy? Odd, that.

This would not be allowed in any other situation. Imagine if someone insisted that all gay people should sit separately from “straight” people, or that different racial groups should sit separately. There would rightly be outrage – although I’m not too sure if that outrage would come from the universities given their stance here. It seems all someone needs to do to achieve segregation is claim it is a religious belief, and then the universities will bend over backwards to accommodate it for fear of being culturally insensitive.

It is quite clear that some Muslim speakers and Islamic societies insist on segregated seating as they believe it is a requirement of their religion. Plenty of Muslims don’t believe it is a religious requirement.  However, for Universities UK to diminish such a fundamental human right as the right to equal treatment, in order to appease a religious group, is a betrayal of reason and rationality – and a betrayal of hard-won civil liberties.

You can sign a petition against Universities UK’s guidance here.

* Sadikur Rahman was an LSS member from May 2013 to Jul 2015

Views expressed are not necessarily those of the LSS

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