Wednesday, 4 December 2013


The problem with Universities UK coming out in favour of gender segregation in talks given by outside speakers does not particularly strike me as an issue of religion freedom.

This is important, because actual conflicts between the right to religious freedom and the right to equal treatment can actually be a pretty tough area, with any number of different scenarios one must navigate. A lot of them boil down to the idea that if someone voluntarily joins an organisation which offers them less than equal treatment, does the state have the right to interfere in that choice?

(Consider the discussion on banning burqas, for instance. The mighty Jane Carnall takes this apart pretty thoroughly here, rooting her argument in the fact that the state has no business telling women they must submit to its definition of equality or face prosecution.)

But this isn't that.  Consider what is happening here.  Students are being asked to comply with the demands of religious speakers from outside their institutions. Speakers who, in the main if not exclusively, represent important figures within their communities and with a profile high enough outside those communities to get speaking gigs.

People, in other words, with power.

This is not about religious folk asking for exemptions on the grounds of their beliefs.  This is about men with power refusing to talk to those with less power unless those people agree in advance to comport themselves according to those men's rules. And then to complain that others refusing to unilaterally concede to their terms violates their free speech (freedom of expression obviously not applying to a university student who wants to sit next to her boyfriend whilst listening to a talk.)

In that sense, this is no different to the cases the Supreme Court in the US is busying itself with right now, in which corporation owners are actually arguing they should not be expected to pay for birth control for their female employees; this despite the fact that said corporations receive tax relief in exchange for providing health insurance for their employees. Essentially, these people are saying they should be allowed to partially pay their employees with health care in in exchange for lower wages, but only provide the health care they themselves consider moral.  Naturally, smart money has the court upholding these objections, because the only thing the Roberts Court likes more than helping out big business is dicking around with Democratic healthcare priorities.

In other words, the powerful demand that their own beliefs should be allowed to trump those with less power, and all of a sudden people are falling over themselves to talk about "fairness".

Odd, that, isn't it?

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