A Christian group is pursuing a judicial review of the decision of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge to cancel an event for young professional Christians over its biblical beliefs on marriage.
Lawyers instructed by the Christian Legal Centre have said that by refusing the booking for the Wilberforce Academy, an initiative of Christian Concern, Fitzwilliam College has directly discriminated against the group on the grounds of its religious and philosophical beliefs.
In February this year, a senior member of staff at the college justified the cancellation of the booking to host the event on the grounds that the group was not “inclusive”, did “not believe in gay marriage” and that Christian Concern’s “general beliefs” were “not compatible with the values of the college.”
The case comes following Worcester College, Oxford, admitting that it ‘misled’ its students after cancelling the Wilberforce Academy for similar reasons in September 2021.
Permission for judicial review
At a permission hearing for a judicial review at the High Court today (15 September) before Sir Ross Cranston, Christian Concern’s lawyers will argue that Fitzwilliam College has acted unlawfully and breached its duty under the Education Act 1986.
The story follows a string of free speech issues at Cambridge University which have included the institution being described as creating a ‘police state’ over ‘potential offences’ and micro-aggressions.
The actions of Fitzwilliam College are also at odds with the universities’ commitment to free speech, which states:
“In exercising their right to freedom of expression, the University expects its staff, students and visitors to be tolerant of the differing opinions of others, in line with the University’s core value of freedom of expression. The University also expects its staff, students, and visitors to be tolerant of the diverse identities of others, in line with the University’s core value of freedom from discrimination. While debate and discussion may be robust and challenging, all speakers have a right to be heard when exercising their right to free speech within the law.”
For over a decade, the Wilberforce Academy (WA) has run a one-week conference for university students and young professionals who want to work out how to apply their Christian faith in the current culture, and more specifically within their chosen vocations, including in law, politics, education, media, arts and business.
Topics covered by expert international speakers include: the role of Christianity in shaping law and culture; understanding today’s context; Biblical ethics on human identity and sexuality; comparative religion including examining the nature of Islam.
The conference includes teaching on Biblical beliefs that have been recognised by the Christian Church globally for the past 2,000 years.
In January 2022, the WA approached Fitzwilliam College to try and book their conference facilities for its September 2022 conference. A booking contract was offered for the week-long conference, with Fitzwilliam’s team declaring: “We look forward to welcoming you to the College.”
However, on February 14, following the WA providing a description of the event for filming permissions, the tone in communication from college shifted dramatically.
A description of the event was provided as follows:
“The Wilberforce Academy is a 1 week intensive residential programme aimed at students and young professionals with a passion to serve Jesus Christ in a variety of vocations including law, politics, education, media, arts, healthcare, ministry and business.
“Our aim is that delegates will be prepared for servant-hearted, Christ-centred leadership in their communities, Churches, and workplaces, having been equipped with a robust biblical framework that guides their thinking, prayers and activity in addressing the issues facing our society.”
The booking contract also required WA to answer the question: “In your view, have any of your speakers at the event previously expressed views which may be interpreted as causing controversy, or promoting extreme intolerance of views of others?”
Below that question, the document stated: “Answering Yes to any of the questions may not lead to a booking being refused but will enable the college to engage with you at early stage to assist you in managing your event.”
WA sent the completed form back, did not tick ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ in response to the question quoted above, but wrote: “As a Christian organisation, Christian Concern holds to the traditional historic Christian understanding of marriage and sanctity of life, in line with mainstream orthodox Christianity and the Church of England.”
The following day, WA received an email from Robert Clarke, Head of Catering and Events, who wrote:
“Thank you for your interest in holding your conference in Fitzwilliam College. After careful consideration the College has decided not to accept the booking on the grounds that the event is not compatible with the values of the College.”
A member of WA then called Mr Clarke seeking clarification on why the booking had been cancelled, but was told that the event must be pulled because WA was perceived to not be “inclusive”, did “not believe in gay marriage” and that Christian Concern’s “general beliefs” were “not compatible with the values of the college.”
Christian beliefs now silenced on campus?
Andrea Williams, chief executive of Christian Concern said: “We are now living in a society where orthodox Christian beliefs appear to be ‘fair game’ for secular activists who have a grip on what is acceptable and what isn’t at the heart of our universities.
“The event was cancelled casually and abruptly as though Christian beliefs on marriage are illegal and therefore discrimination of this nature is an acceptable norm. For senior members of a world-renowned college to show such brazen discrimination of Christian beliefs should concern anyone who cares about Christian freedoms and free speech. We are concerned how students at Fitzwilliam College who hold orthodox Christian beliefs might be being intimidated into silence on campus.
“Whatever happens, we will continue to speak of Jesus Christ who was himself an ‘outsider’ and by his words and actions demonstrated his commitment to reaching the marginalised, excluded and vulnerable so that they could discover true hope and everlasting love through him, even sacrificing his own life to do so.”