When did student politicians lose their sense of irony?

This year I’ve returned to USYD main campus as a (part time, postgrad) student after ten years away. Fisher library is still there. Ralph’s is still there (though the man himself, sadly, is much missed). But what on earth has happened to the student politicians’ sense of irony?

For those of you who missed the news, the USYD student union (or USU) is using, er, “discrimination or something” to justify kicking one of its oldest and largest interdenominational faith based groups off campus.

Because apparently you can have any faith you like… as long as it’s not any faith in particular.

The Evangelical Union has been around doing its thing since long before my grandma was on the committee: being delightfully earnest and mildly irritating as they float around campus in green tee shirts inviting people to interminable BBQs. But now the members of the student union board think that the beliefs and principles which form the core basis of their association (and which their executive must sign up to) have to go, or else. They introduced a new regulation for clubs and societies in November last year, and then issued an ultimatum for the 86 year-old club to comply.

“The foundations of the Program and of the USU are accessibility and inclusion, and to limit the candidates for election to Club Executives to those who ascribe to a particular faith is no less exclusionary than requiring candidates to be of a particular sexuality or gender identity.” (Olivia Ronan, Vice President of the USU, in interview with Honi Soit)

And I’d totally agree with Olivia. If the EU stood for “Electricians United” or “Eurhythmics Union”. But it stands for “Evangelical Union”: that’s what the club is about, and to make being on board with what the club is about a requirement for leadership in that club (leadership, mind you … as anyone in a green tee shirt will tell you, everyone is so very very extremely welcome to come to their BBQs, camps and talks) is hardly the grossest human rights violation of the last century.

Of course if anyone actually thought about this for more than ten seconds then that should be obvious. Why did we decide to invent discrimination laws in the first place? Because people were doing horrific and evil things like saying you can’t work in my bank unless you are a certain race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc.  Discrimination is discrimination because the factor is irrelevant to the inherent requirements of the job, or (in this case) the basis of the association.

Now, discrimination is a complex area so it’s natural that people use rules of thumb rather than wading deeply and thoughtfully into what is right in a certain situation. As a rule of thumb, yes, beliefs (whether religious beliefs or political beliefs or beliefs about string theory) are usually irrelevant. But not always. Political views are no reason to ban someone from a restaurant. But political beliefs are a very good reason to decide who can sign up to a political party. (Here’s my handy rule of thumb: if it’s one of the words in the name of the job or association you’re applying for, it’s probably not discrimination. Try these at home: Student Union. Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union. Evangelical Union.)

But here’s why the stakes are higher than the Evangelical Union having to fend off a takeover by the Atheist Union (seriously, could they really be bothered?). By saying beliefs are never relevant to any association you’re saying faith groups can’t form associations. (And, as the EU president tried to explain to the board, that is as it happens probably a violation of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. To which the same USU Vice President responded by pointing out that they themselves haven’t signed any UN treaties lately… so I guess that means who cares what one of the single most important international instruments on the subject of human rights actually says about the very rights you say you’re trying to protect?).

I’m not a member of the EU (and haven’t been for years), and I don’t know what they’ll decide to do in response to the ultimatum. But if they do bow to the student union’s pressure to change the core principles which assemble and unify them then I’ll be quite sad. Not as much for the Evangelical Union – but for the whole state of diverse and thoughtful student life on campus.

Protecting freedom of religion by attacking faith communities’ freedom to associate? Apparently being a USU board member requires any sense of irony to be surgically removed. (Either that or they just don’t like religious groups and want them, and their annoying green tee shirts, off campus for good.)


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