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Friday, January 27, 2006

Guild could face legal action as row with BUECU hits national news

Friday, January 27th
Rebecca King

The Guild is facing possible legal action in the dispute over the constitution of Birmingham University Evangelical Christian Union (BUECU) after freezing the society's assets in an unprecedented manoeuvre.

Last week Redbrick ran an article covering the ongoing debate between the Guild Executive and BUECU. The story hit the national news on Wednesday with articles in The Times and The Guardian, as well as making the front page of The Birmingham Post and being reported by BBC West Midlands.

The row escalated following revelations that the Guild has suspended BUECU's assets of more than £5,000, pending a final decision on the matter. Media coverage of the situation has centred around thsi issue and has been largely supportive of the Evangelical Christian Union's cause, although this is likely to be because of a BUECU press release. The Guild were also reticent to comment on the matter up until Wednesday of this week, when a formal statement was issued.

The original disagreement was over the constitutions of the two organisations, as two mandatory clauses in the Guild's ruling document conflict with BUECU policy. The clauses include requirements that every society allow anyone to be a member regardless of religious beliefs, and rules on how the society's committee should be established. BUECU does not democratically elect members of a committee but has a process in which the incumbent committee selects suitable candidates and then presents their choice to society members. They also require members to declare themselves as Christians and to commit themselves to the aims of BUECU.

However, the actions of the Guild have been described as "political correctness gone mad", following discoveries that the Evangelical Christian Union were also told to amend references to 'men' and 'women' in their constitution on the basis that this represented discrimination against transsexuals. Unfortunately, the article in The Times seemed to focus more on this issue than the main thrust of the debate, with a sensationalist headline claiming 'Students ban Christians in row over gays'.

Richard Angell, President of the Guild, asserted, "We have to ensure by the 1994 Education Act that all of our societies are open to students' membership", and contended that BUECU was in direct contravention of the legally binding clauses, of which the Executive Committee are trustees.

Certainly, in legal terms it is necessary for BUECU to be disassociated from the Guild given the irreconcilable differences between their two positions. Yet there is some feeling amongst students that if Guild policy constitutes this kind of action, it may be necessary to make some amendments to it. Some also feel that the Guild has become subsumed in red tape and is no longer able to cater for the needs of students (ultimately its main goal) because of this.

BUECU has been running for over 76 years and has maintained the same constitution since their original affiliation to the Guild. Although they revised around a third of it in the light of this criticism, President Matthew Crouch wrote that "There are some Guild 'mandatory clauses' we feel we cannot include in our constitution because they are in conflict with our religious beliefs". He also pointed out that in no way does the ECU discriminate between members and non-members, with "all students... welcome to any of our events and meetings".

Staff worker Andy Weatherly, from the University and Colleges Christian Fellowship, also stated, "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". Mr Weatherly emphasised the view of the ECU that this applies to all societies, not just religious ones. A key argument is that the very premise of a society is to bring together people with a certain commonality, and to deny that commonality is arguably to nullify the nature of societies in general.

The actions of the Guild have come into question more recently. Despite an original decision at a Council meeting on 1st December that de-recognition would be delayed until a further meeting of the Society Recognition and De-recognition Committee, BUECU was suspended on 8th December and had its societal privileges revoked, including the use of Guild facilities, e-mail and webspace. However, the most controversial point in question is that of BUECU's funds, which have been frozen by the Guild. These amount to around £5,300, most of which Matt Crouch describes as "donated by individuals in ECU and members of the public".

A solicitor acting on behalf of the Union has warned the Guild they could possibly be faced with court proceedings unless these monies are returned. In the press release issued by the Guild on Wednesday, they stated that "the accounts of ECU were frozen, with the intention that any money will be returned to donors".

These events have not prevented BUECU from continued planning for their forthcoming week named "Truth.", in which they aim to "put on events designed specifically for non-members to investigate the Christian faith". This will be held from Monday January 30th until Friday February 3rd.

BUECU have hired a marquee to go on Chancellors' Court to host their event, so derecognition from the Guild does not effect them running the week.

This issue is not a new one for Christian Unions in Universities throughout the country, with CUs in University College London and Hull having faced exclusion from their Student Unions. However, Pod Bhogal, communications director for UCCF, said, "In all our years of working with hundreds of higher education establishments, this action by Birmingham's Guild is unique".

At the time of going to press, a Guild Council meeting had yet to take place on Thursday 26th to make a final decision on the matter. It remains to be seen whether BUECU will take legal action against the Guild, following any other consequences of the current debate.

1 Comments:

  • Thanks for writing this up in a way I could understand. Hope the "Truth" week goes really well.

    By Blogger Cora, at 2:42 pm  

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