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Monday, June 27, 2022

Worcester College warned of “unlawful discrimination” against Christians

Estelle Atkinson reports on the recent warning issued by the Free Speech Union.

Estelle Atkinson
Estelle Atkinson
Former Editor-in-Chief (TT22)

Worcester College has been warned it could be “unlawfully discriminating against Christians” after the College apologised for hosting a controversial conference and reportedly canceled a second conference booking following complaints from students. In a public letter addressed to David Isaac CBE, the Provost of Worcester College, the Free Speech Union calls these complaints “ill-founded” and for the College to apologise to Christian Concern, a group that aims to “make Jesus and his ways known, to protect the freedom to live and speak for him, and to empower Christians to be compassionate and courageous ambassadors.” 

In September 2021, Christian Concern held its annual Wilberforce Academy at Worcester College. The curriculum of the Academy addressed a new theme each day, including “Life & Health” and “The Art of Freedom,” with subtopics including “Beginning and End of Life Issues,” “Homosexuality and Transgenderism,” and “The Nature of Islam.” Students complained that the portion of the curriculum discussing Islam was islamophobic. 

Wilberforce Academy as an organisation opposes abortion, same-sex marriage, and banning ‘conversion therapy;’ speakers on the course appeared to draw connections between homosexuality and paedophilia. 

Worcester College apologised for hosting the event, and media outlets have reported that the College then cancelled a second booking after students complained that they were “distressed” by the event. Worcester College denies that any conference booking has been cancelled. 

The student complaints included allegations that attendees were conducting “aggressive leafleting” and approaching students to discuss LGBTQ+ ‘conversion therapy.’ Wilf Stephenson, the College’s interim finance and estates bursar, affirmed these complaints, in addition to alleging that attendees had been “unduly demanding” and in breach of COVID protocols. 

An independent review of the incident, conducted by lawyer Michael Stewart, found that there was no evidence to support these allegations, and that college staff were not able to find or provide a copy of the leaflet. The review also said that the College did not have any COVID protocols in place at the time. Worcester College told Cherwell that it does not accept many of the findings in the review. 

Following the inquiry, Toby Young, the General Secretary of the Free Speech Union, wrote a letter to David Isaac, saying that “the College’s uncritical acceptance of claims that the conference harmed students was a serious error.

“In keeping with, as you put it yourself, your own and the College’s commitment to freedom of speech, the College should have investigated and faced down students’ ill-founded complaints. No higher education institution should apologise for free speech.” 

Young suggested that the College “put right its error” by issuing an apology to Christian Concern and taking its booking for the next Wilberforce Academy conference in September 2022. Young concluded: “You do not need reminding that refusing to provide the College’s services because of Christian Concern’s religious beliefs would constitute unlawful discrimination.” 

Worcester College has offered to meet Christian Concern to engage in direct discussion.

Worcester College told Cherwell: “Worcester College wishes to clarify that, contrary to what is being said in the media, no conference booking has been cancelled. The College does not accept many of the findings in Christian Concern’s own report, and we are disappointed that this report has been published without us having the opportunity to discuss it in advance. The College looks forward to a constructive meeting with Christian Concern and the chance to discuss properly the issues raised.  It does not wish to comment further at this stage except to make it very clear that the College supports free speech and to confirm that it remains one of the core values of Worcester.”

In a press release, Andrea Williams, Chief Executive of Christian Concern, said “It is disappointing that such a prestigious university and college should be cancelling Christian beliefs, debate and free speech.

“Oxford University should continue to stand for free speech and free expression and allow its students to have the intellectual ability to decide whether they wish to attend external events, and to make up their own minds on what they hear.”

Image Credit: Andrew Shiva / CC BY-SA 4.0

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