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Last Updated: Friday, 5 January 2007, 16:06 GMT
Christian group ban sparks debate
By Jon Silverman
Legal affairs analyst

Cross and candle
Alleged religious discrimination is at the centre of the row

There has been employment litigation which has centred on alleged discrimination on religious grounds.

But the Exeter case is thought to be the first to go to law in the education world.

Given a number of acrimonious conflicts between Christian groups and their student bodies over exclusive membership policies, the outcome will be of some significance.

The Evangelical Christian Union (ECU) at Exeter University will almost certainly seek to use Section 13 of the Human Rights Act in its judicial review.

That section was inserted specifically to assuage concerns by religious organisations that their beliefs and practices would not be circumscribed by the act.

This case is about a clash of competing equalities

Barrister Schona Jolly

Schona Jolly, a barrister at Cloisters, said: "On the face of it, the decision by the student guild at Exeter to freeze the ECU's bank account and suspend it from membership, is a breach of Section 13.

"However, this case is about a clash of competing equalities.

"The guild will probably argue that it is entitled to take financial measures because the law requires it to uphold the principle of equality of opportunity and that it is not obliged to fund a society which openly excludes some prospective members, whether on grounds of sexual orientation or religious belief."

Assuming that the High Court accepts that a university is a "public authority" - which it almost certainly will - the first question to decide is whether the ECU can claim the protection of the Human Rights Act at all.

The European Court of Human Rights has taken a fairly narrow view of the freedom to "manifest" one's religion.

'Pressing social need'

In the Exeter case, the ECU's requirement that members sign a statement of beliefs might be interpreted as a different matter from manifesting one's religion and thus not protected by law.

Historically, it has been harder for churches and religious organisations than individuals to make such a case.

A number of articles of the European Convention on Human Rights are relevant to this case - those dealing with freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association and prohibition of discrimination.

But none is absolute and all may be qualified by a public authority so long as such action is lawful, necessary and proportionate.

The guild will need to show that there is a "pressing social need" for the action it has taken.

If there is a full judicial review, it could be a ground-breaking case.


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