Rejoice, lovers of liberty and Enlightenment values. On the 3rd July 2019, the Court of Appeal decreed that universities should not conflate beliefs with discrimination. Do not underestimate the importance of this judgment, at a time when so many scholars have been persecuted for thought crime. Noah Carl, a talented and conservatively-minded young man, was cast as a Nazi eugenicist for studying genes and intelligence – and disgracefully dismissed by Cambridge University to the glee of a baying mob. Christians have been witch-hunted for homophobia, and feminists for transphobia, despite meaning no harm in anything they have said or done.
Section 10 if the Court of Appeal‘s judgement,
The University wrongly confused the expression of religious views with the
notion of discrimination. The mere expression of views on theological grounds (e.g. that ‘homosexuality is a sin’) does not necessarily connote that the person expressing such views will discriminate on such grounds. In the present case, Judgment Approved by the court for handing down. Ngole -v- University of Sheffield there was positive evidence to suggest that the Appellant had never discriminated on such grounds in the past and was not likely to do so in the future (because, as he explained, the Bible prohibited him from discriminating against anybody.
After years of bludgeoning by so-called political correctness and the hypocritical doctrines of tolerance and diversity, the tide may at least be turning against censorship in our high seats of learning. Universities must be ‘bastions of debate and defenders of expression’, pronounced David Isaac, chairman of the Equalities & Human Rights Commission in a speech at the School of Oriental & African Studies in London this week. In this age of hypersensitivity, people are offended (or offended by proxy) all too easily. It is wrong, Isaac argued, to ban stalls promoting Christian causes such as protecting the unborn child at fresher fairs.
Christian groups have been particularly bullied by radical activists, who gain disproportionate influence on campus. Fundamentalist (i.e. insufficiently apologetic) beliefs are portrayed as harmful to female and LGBT students, while the same student unions are unstinting in their support for Muslim representation. Quite rightly, an Islamic society would not be expected to reject scripture on divine creation, sexual mores or abortion. But Christians must tread just as carefully as an orthodox priest in Stalinist Russia, or in China toe the narrow line of state-sanctioned faith.
So it is very heartening to hear the verdict of the Court of Appeal on the case of social work student Felix Ngole. Expelled from his course at University of Sheffield in 2016, Ngole was represented by Christian Concern, who successfully claimed that the institution had acted unfairly. A university obsessed with discrimination had itself discriminated. Expected to apologise for remarks he had made on Facebook about a same-sex marriage controversy in the USA, Ngole refused to retract his opinions or to renounce his faith. Referring to passages in the Bible, as far as the university authorities were concerned he might as well have been citing Mein Kampf.
Does devout religious belief lead to prejudice in practice? It could do. But I think back to my mental health nursing student days near Glasgow, an area rife with sectarianism amidst the worst outrages of IRA and UVF terrorism. I felt sickened when a fellow trainee, on seeing the news of a mass carnage of a cadet brass band at a military barracks in Kent, expressed his approval. He was of Catholic Irish background, a republican, a Celtic fan, and a polar opposite to me. Yet despite being so partisan, he was an excellent nurse. We had a great time together in our training, although I still can’t forgive his support for an act of barbarism.
If having a preferential perspective is anathema to fair and ethical practice, there would be few nurses or doctors in Northern Ireland. Yet the reality is that throughout the Troubles victims of shootings or bombings received compassionate care, irrespective of which side of Belfast they inhabited. Each of us as human beings is unique and deserving of dignity: the life of God’s children is sacrosanct. Arguably, despite its humanist ideals, secularism has wreaked damage on universal principles and practice. The Biblical exhortation to treat others as you would want to be treated yourself is sadly forgotten by those who indulge in Twitter storms, or who sign petitions to get someone sacked and destroy their livelihood.
To my knowledge, Ngole would have no problem in working with a gay client, but I’m afraid that he would not be credited with such inclusiveness, despite his Christian values. This must change if we are to move beyond the petty battles of identity politics. The Court of Appeal verdict is a symbolic step to overcoming illiberal and intolerant attitudes by those who profess themselves as liberal and progressive. Let’s take the ‘but’ out of freedom.
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