People should be treated equally when accessing public services. It’s mad that so simple a statement should need to be shouted and yet when it comes to religious privilege in the UK, that’s exactly what is needed. The truth is that for its many advances in other areas of human rights, the UK remains a country of deeply rooted and deeply divisive religious privilege and nowhere is this clearer than in our education system.
Christians enjoy unfair access to education in this country. Christian schools, primarily Catholic and Church of England, are empowered to direct state funds exclusively towards fellow believers and only have to give places to non-Christians if there are any left over. They are also permitted to discriminate in hiring staff, not just religious education teachers but in any subject. This would not be permitted in any other type of organisation, public or private, except, of course, in a church.
In our universities too we see the stain of religious privilege, with our own AHS societies often on its receiving end. The past year has seen a particularly high number of instances on British campuses with the last academic year kicking off with Pineapplegate, where Reading Atheists were forced to remove a pineapple named Mohammad from their Freshers Fayre stall by their union. The Reading society currently faces the threat of closure for refusing to sign their union’s behavioural policy, which includes a prohibition on causing offence.
On the other side of the coin we have seen the march of religious privilege continue unhindered as Bristol University’s Christian Union banned unmarried women from addressing their society, only allowing married women to speak in the presence of their husbands. Such policies should never be permitted in public institutions and yet we allow them to continue under the guise of “religious freedom”.
The status quo in universities continues to mean silencing statements for fear of harmless “offence” and doing nothing to prevent practices that deliberately harm oppressed groups. That this is the case is not because our universities are run by religious fundamentalists, it is because they know that religions will fight tooth and nail to protect their privileges, while the non-religious too often are not aware of where to turn when they see their rights denied.
This is one of the reasons behind the creation of the AHS; to be a national body that can represent students who find the tide of religious privilege washing over them. Universities need to know that when the rights of their non-religious students are ignored we will not remain silent. Universities need to know that when they allow religious groups on campus to use their names and facilities while discriminating against others they will be held accountable. Universities need to know that only a secular approach can provide equal opportunities on campus for all students. This is also why the AHS will be supporting and attending the Secular Europe Campaign March this Saturday 14th September.
This Saturday’s march is the first major secular event of the new term and academic year. It will be attended by many different secular groups from around the UK and is our chance to send a strong signal that there is a real appetite for secularism in the UK. It will take place at 2pm outside Downing St. with more info here. We want to see as many student faces there as possible. Spread the word!
See you there,